Tugs give passengers on unsanitary cruise ship hope for relief

(CNN) -- The passengers aboard the Carnival Triumph are at the mercy now of sea and wind conditions.

If they worsen, it'll mean yet more time aboard a ship with sewage sloshing around in hallways, with rooms flooded and with little food.

But if all goes well, the ship, which was left adrift in the Gulf of Mexico after an engine room fire, will slowly limp to shore in Mobile, Alabama, Thursday afternoon.

Two days after the Triumph should have arrived back in Galveston, Texas -- where the cruise had originated -- two tugboats were dragging the nearly 900-foot 14-story ship through the gulf at a jogger's pace.

Most of the Triumph's 23 public restrooms and some others are working, Carnival has said.

But the ship is carrying 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew members -- and they are dealing with limited running water and working toilets.

Unsanitary conditions

The ship lost propulsion Sunday after a fire broke out in its engine room. It was the third day of a four-day cruise.

Much of the ship's electrical power went down in the fire, causing widespread malfunctions and unsanitary conditions.

Passengers have reported sewage in hallways, water in rooms and trouble getting enough to eat.

"It's disgusting. It's the worst thing ever," passenger Ann Barlow told CNN.

Barlow's husband, Toby, said she told him there was "sewage running down the walls and floors" with passengers being asked to defecate in bags and urinate in showers due to the lack of functioning toilets.

Jet Hilton waited in the food line for three hours.

"People ahead of her hoarded food," her sister, Jennifer Stanfield, said. "By the time she got up there, all she could get was a hamburger and some waters."

The odor is sickeing, said Brent Nutt, whose wife is aboard the ship.

People are "throwing up everywhere," he said.

Hilton and 20 of her girlfriends booked the cruise to celebrate one of their birthdays.

She is a former cheerleader, Stanfield said, and is doing what she can to keep her group's spirits up.

Other inconveniences

The fire also cut power to air conditioning, and the ship is very hot, Stanfield said.

The crew has higher priorities to fulfill than cooling cabins with what electricity the ship does have.

"They have to make sure there's adequate power to keep the ship from sinking or burning further," said Dr. Richard Burke from the University of New York Maritime College.

An emergency generator does not deliver the amount of electricity to run an entire ship, he said.

Passengers have reported heaving their mattresses onto the ship's open deck to stay cool and get away from the nasty smells inside.

The fire also knocked out the ship's stabilization system, causing it to lean, Burke said.

"There's time when the ship is leaning pretty hard, and you're worried you'll flip," said passenger Donna Gutzman.

Bad luck before

The fire is at least the second problem for the ship since late January, when it had an issue with its propulsion system, according to a notice posted to Carnival senior cruise director John Heald's website.

The company also recently repaired one of Triumph's alternators, the company said Tuesday.

However, there's no evidence the alternator problem and the fire are linked, the cruise line said.

In 2010, the Carnival's cruise ship Splendor lost power after an engine room fire, leaving it drifting off the Pacific coast of Mexico. The USS Ronald Reagan ferried 60,000 pounds of supplies for the ship's passengers and crew as the ship was towed to San Diego.

Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill told reporters on Tuesday evening that the cruise line is using its full resources to assist passengers and family members in a "very challenging" situation.

"No one here at Carnival is happy about conditions on board the ship," Cahill said. "We are very sorry about what is taking place."

Damage control

Passengers will get a free flight home, a full refund for their trip and for most expenses on board, as well as a credit for another cruise, Carnival said. Medical staff will be waiting in port for the ship's arrival, in case passengers need treatment.

The Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board launched an investigation into the cause of the engine room fire. Because the Carnival Triumph is a Bahamian-flagged vessel, the Bahamas Maritime Authority is the primary investigative agency.

Burke, of the Maritime College, told CNN he had "no reason to believe that Carnival in any way is not a first-class operator. Nor do I believe that their ships are not good ships. I think they are just being unlucky right now."

Stanfield believes Hilton's sense of humor will get her through the unpleasant experience.

"I think it's going to be one of those stories that she will love to tell," Stanfield said.

But not anytime soon.

CNN's Joe Sutton, Dave Alsup, Sandra Endo, Chuck Johnston, Esprit Smith, Greg Botelho and Marnie Hunter contributed to this report.