Cruise ship drama: How to survive on an 893-foot life raft

Tourists turned survivors got back to basics and formed a temporary colony onboard the paralyzed Carnival Triumph.

Jennifer Reynolds/The Galveston County Daily News/AP
Patricia Wagner, right, hugs her sister Mercedes Perez de Colon, as their group is reunited in Galveston, Texas.after taking separate buses from Mobile, Ala., where the disabled Carnival ship Triumph docked on Friday.

As tourists-turned-survivors kissed the ground as they began to disembark from the Carnival Triumph early Friday, stories emerged about how passengers survived, and sometimes even thrived, while dealing with short supplies and a "sauna of sewage" on the paralyzed cruise ship.

To be sure, the incident, which started after an engine fire last Sunday left the Triumph powerless and adrift in the Gulf of Mexico, has already sparked lawsuits by disgruntled passengers who complained of backed-up toilets, inattentive crew and other "nightmare" conditions.

What's more, it was another PR ordeal for Carnival, which lost the Costa Concordia last year off the coast of Italy, and saw another ship, the Carnival Splendor, stranded and adrift for days in the Gulf in September 2010.

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Yet as Triumph passengers came ashore and boarded buses for home on Friday, it also became clear that the experience of being adrift in basically a 893-foot life raft also gave some of those aboard a fresh sense of gratitude as they formed prayer groups, helped each other build topside tents, bartered for goods like baby formula, looked after passengers with disabilities, and gave comfort to complete strangers as the days whiled by.

"The ship looked like vagabond city," Cedar Hill resident Georgia Jackson told the Associated Press, "but by and large people got along great."

The 893-foot vessel was entering the third day of a four-day cruise last Sunday when its power plant (and most of the plumbing) was knocked out by a fire en route from the Yucatan Peninsula to Galveston, Texas.

Passengers began reporting harsh conditions back to family on the mainland as the ship drifted, and warm weather and winds exacerbated the below-decks sewage problems. Some people reacted by "freaking out,"  passengers reported, while others consumed too much of the free alcohol served by the cruise line. Tensions reportedly rose among some passengers as the reality of their situation sunk in.

"A 102,000-ton boat the length of three football fields and containing 4,000 passengers, was reduced to Huck Finn’s raft," surmised Washington Post columnist Monica Hesse.

But as Americans were left to only imagine the worsening conditions on the ship, passengers were rewarded for their patience and forbearance. After a generator was delivered to the ship on Thursday, passengers were treated to hot food – including steak – for the first time in days. And as the ship finally entered Mobile, Alabamians lined the harbor and cheered while Mobile businesses and officials gave the tired tourists what one called "the royal treatment."

"There is that positive bright side in human behavior," Scott Schieman, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto who studies the connection between stress and health, told the Toronto Globe & Mail last year in a story about how people react to emergencies. "It's an interesting idea: To what extent people are willing to really reach out and help other people."

Academics who have studied human response to emergency situations have often come up surprised at how unselfishly most people respond, writes Amanda Ripley in a Time article about emergency preparation. "All of us, but especially people in charge – of a city, a theater, a business – should recognize that people can be trusted to do their best at the worst of times," she writes.

Some researchers suggest people help each other in emergencies partly for self-preservation – to garner allegiance and earn future favors. But others suggest the instinct to help others, even to one's own discomfort, could also be a simple coping mechanism to get through a long, difficult ordeal.

Humor, of course, also helped in the case of the stranded Carnival Triumph passengers. As the ship approached port, some passengers laid down on the top deck to spell out the word "HELP" with their bodies while one woman waved a sign that said, "I miss my cats."

Meanwhile, Carnival hasn't determined what caused the fire. The National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday it has opened an investigation into the cause.

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