SAN DIEGO — Kathleen Ehlert has spent the last four days scouring the Internet, flipping between news channels and waiting by the phone, hoping for any word on her family stranded aboard a disabled cruise ship.
On Thursday, she finally heard from them. It was a short, crackly call from her mother, but it was something.
“She couldn’t hear me, because the boat was so loud. But she was yelling and saying, ’We’re fine, we’re here,”’ said the 29-year-old Ehlert, who lives in Calgary.
“She was on the verge of tears, saying, ’This hasn’t been fun.”’
Ehlert’s family members were among the nearly 4,500 people, including nearly 200 Canadians, who were on board the Carnival Splendor when it lost power Monday following a fire in the engine room.
After four days of rationed cold food, stinky toilets and dark cabins, the ship finally docked Thursday in San Diego harbour, pulled to shore by six tugboats.
The news couldn’t come fast enough for Ehlert, who said she only heard about the fire on the ship through her sister, who lives in Utah.
“I feel so out of the loop up here in Canada right now,” she said.
Ehlert’s parents, both in their fifties, were on the ship with another sister and a handful of other family members.
Ehlert’s cousin Jalene Hansen managed to plug in her dead cell phone as soon as she got off the ship.
“It’s good to be back,” the Utah resident told The Canadian Press as the family waited for a bus to Long Beach, Calif.
“It’s surreal a little bit because you just get into the flow of things and it becomes normal for a little while, and then you think about it and realize, this isn’t normal.”
Back in Canada, Ehlert said her life over the past week was anything but normal as she pieced together snippets of news about life aboard the powerless ship.
“I didn’t know what information they were giving,” she said. “At 5:30, if the fire alarms go off, that can be really scary. I just wish I could hear what was going on.”
Ehlert said she was especially concerned about her nephew, who turned nine aboard the ship on the very day its power cut out.
“I felt bad for him. He probably had a horrible birthday.”
The lack of power also meant passengers weren’t able to charge cellphones or laptops, making it much harder for them to connect with loved ones on land, even when they drifted within cellphone range.
“It’s been nerve-racking,” said Ehlert. “I’ve been sitting in front of my computer, my TV, just trying to get any new information I can.”
Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs said U.S. authorities told them 196 Canadian citizens were among the passengers. Spokeswoman Claude Rochon said officials from the Canadian consulate in Los Angeles were ready to help any Canadians as required.
The Splendor left Long Beach, Calif., on Sunday for a seven-day trip to the Mexican Riviera. The ship was about 322 kilometres south of San Diego and about 71 kilometres off shore when the fire killed its power.
Hansen recalls being evacuated from her cabin before dawn on Monday and moving to an outside deck where passengers could see smoke coming from the back of the ship.
“A lot of confusion, a lot of annoyance from different passengers…but I don’t think there was a lot of fear,” said Hansen.
The hard times really began after the fire was put out and the ship was left without power.
Hansen described dark cabins, no air conditioning, no hot water and a day when a lack of running water meant no flushing toilets. The casino and swimming pools were also closed.
Meanwhile, the only food available was a lot of cold creations.
“Dinner and lunch was sandwiches, sandwiches and more sandwiches,” said Hansen.
U.S. navy helicopters also flew in non-perishable provisions for those on board, including Spam, Pop Tarts and canned crab meat.
The limited food supplies meant long lines for cold meals, which sometimes resulted in arguments between frustrated passengers.
On the whole though, Hansen said most passengers bonded over their situation, playing cards, singing and sleeping out on open decks.
“For the most part people hung in there pretty well,” said Hansen. “A lot of people kind of came together.”
In a statement Thursday, the cruise line said it was arranging alternate flight arrangements, ground transportation and local accommodations for passengers once they disembarked in San Diego. Passengers would be reimbursed for the cost of the trip, including transportation costs, and be offered a complimentary cruise.
“We wish to thank our guests for their patience and co-operation during this very difficult situation and offer our sincerest apologies,” said Gerry Cahill, Carnival’s president and CEO.
Earlier on Thursday, on a Carnival Lines website blog, cruise director John Heald said all people aboard “have risen to the obvious challenges and difficult conditions onboard.” He said he had been making a lot of announcements from the bridge to keep everyone informed of the situation.
“Obviously it has been a challenge but let me tell you the most important facts and those are that the ship is safe, the guests are safe and that nobody was injured.”
— By Diana Mehta in Toronto, with files from the Associated Press.