A cruise line says it is making the passengers stranded aboard a disabled ship in the Gulf of Mexico as comfortable as possible with running water and some working bathrooms, contradicting the accounts of some passengers who told relatives of filthy, hot conditions and limited access to food.

The ship, the Carnival Triumph, is still at least a day from being guided to a port in Alabama.

Carnival president Gerry Cahill said Tuesday the ship has running water and most of its 23 public restrooms and some of the guest cabin bathrooms were working. He downplayed the possibility of an outbreak of disease from unsanitary conditions, saying the ship had not seen an abnormal number of people reporting to the infirmary as being ill.

Cruises canceled

Carnival Cruise Lines has canceled voyages through April aboard the Triumph. The announcement of the 12 canceled trips came Wednesday.

Two other cruises were called off shortly after Sunday's fire.

"No one here from Carnival is happy about the conditions onboard the ship," Cahill said at a news conference in Miami. "We obviously are very, very sorry about what is taking place."

Jennifer Stanfield, the sister of a passenger on board the Carnival Triumph, spoke with CBC News Wednesday morning from Lafayette, Ind.

"From what I hear, conditions are pretty bad," Stanfield said. "They were given plastic baggies to use for their personal toilet facility."

According to some reports there are only five working washrooms for about 4,000 passengers.

She also said that there was a lot of food hoarding. After her sister waited in line for three hours for food, she found only one hamburger and a bottle of water left.

"They are not allowed to go into their rooms, and I don`t know if that`s because there is no electricity and there are electric locks, or if it's because there's no air conditioning and

[it's] for their comfort," she said. 

"They are sleeping on deck and in public places, so it's not exactly what they had in mind when signed up for a weekend getaway."

Stanfield added that her sister is a part of a group of 20 women who are taking turns texting their husbands in order to conserve the batteries of their mobile phones.

One husband is functioning as centre contact with the group and the Carnival line.

"From what I understand they are trying to play cards on deck and make the best of a bad situation," she said.

Ship had prior mechanical problems

The disabled cruise ship has had other mechanical problems in recent weeks, including one that delayed its departure on a previous voyage from Galveston late last month.

Debbi Smedley, a passenger on a Triumph cruise that left Galveston on Jan. 28, said she received an email from Carnival Cruise Lines hours before the scheduled departure stating the ship would leave late because of a propulsion problem. Passengers were asked to arrive at the port at 2 p.m., two hours later than originally scheduled.

The ship did not sail until after 8 p.m., she said.

"My mother is a cruise travel agent so this is not my first rodeo. I have sailed many, many cruises, many, many cruise lines. This was, by far, I have to say, the worst," said Smedley, of Plano, Texas.

Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen acknowledged the Triumph's recent mechanical woes, explaining that there was an electrical problem with the ship's alternator on the previous voyage. Repairs were completed Feb. 2.

"Testing of the repaired part was successful and "there is no evidence at this time of any relationship between this previous issue and the fire that occurred on Feb. 10."

According to the email sent to passengers on Jan. 28, the issue affected the ship's cruising speeds, delaying its arrival in Galveston. The email also informed Smedley and other passengers that the propulsion problem would prevent them from docking at two ports.

"I am sorry to say due to the limited cruising speed our itinerary will be impacted. Depending on the progress of the repairs, we will either visit Progreso or Cozumel," stated the email, signed by Vicky Rey, vice president of guest services. "The good news is that we will remain docked overnight at either port."

Smedley said the ship was in poor condition overall. During her five-day cruise, a water line broke in the hallway ceiling near her cabin, and a separate sewer line broke outside the main dining hall, she said. Metal was protruding from handrails on the staircases, and the elevators were often not operating.

Rather than docking in Progreso for only a few hours as planned, the ship stayed in the port for two days, and cruise workers repeatedly told passengers they were waiting for parts to fix a mechanical problem, she said.

Towed ship to arrive in Alabama Thursday

Despite a forecast of brisker winds and slightly higher seas, the Coast Guard and Carnival said they did not expect conditions to deteriorate aboard ship.

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Gerry Cahill, president and CEO of Carnival Cruise Lines, addresses media Tuesday during a news conference at the company's headquarters in Miami. (Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Lines/Associated Press)

A cold front was expected to cross the central Gulf where the vessel is under tow, bringing north and northwesterly winds of 15 to 25 mph and seas of four to six feet, said Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center.

However, such conditions shouldn't affect conditions aboard ship, said Bill Segelken, spokesman for the Coast Guard Galveston command centre.

The ship was about 320 kilometres south of Mobile, Alabama, as Tuesday faded into Wednesday, the Coast Guard said. Carnival says the ship is expected to arrive in Mobile on Thursday.

The ship left Galveston, Texas, for a four-day cruise last Thursday with 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew members. The ship was about 240 kilometres off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula on Sunday when an engine room fire knocked out its primary power source, crippling its water and plumbing systems and leaving it adrift on only a backup power.

No one was injured in the fire, but Carnival spokeswoman Joyce Oliva said Tuesday that a passenger with a pre-existing medical condition was taken off the ship as a precaution.

Everyone else likely will have to remain onboard until the ship reaches Mobile, Ala., which is expected to happen Thursday, weather permitting.

Besides two tugs, at least two other Carnival cruise ships have been diverted to the Triumph to leave supplies and a 65-metre Coast Guard cutter was at the scene, Coast Guard Petty Officer Richard Brahm said Tuesday.

Passengers set up 'shanty town'

Mowlam said his son told him the lack of ventilation on the Triumph had made it too hot to sleep inside and that many passengers had set up camp on the ocean liner's decks and in its common areas. Mowlam said he wasn't sure where his son was sleeping.

"He said up on deck it looks like a shanty town, with sheets, almost like tents, mattresses, anything else they can pull to sleep on," said Mowlam, of the southeast Texas town of Warren. His son is from nearby Nederland.

Mowlam said his son indicated that passengers are trying to make the best of a bad situation.

'No one here from Carnival is happy about the conditions onboard the ship. We obviously are very, very sorry about what is taking place.'—Carnival President Gerry Cahill

"So far people have been pretty much taking it in stride," Mowlam said his son told him.

Rob Mowlam told his father the ship's crew had started giving free alcohol to passengers.

"He was concerned about what that was going to lead to when people start drinking too much," Mowlam said.

Other passengers have described more dire conditions, including overflowing toilets and limited access to food.

Jay Herring, a former senior officer for Carnival Cruise Lines, said one of the biggest concerns crew members will have until the ship docks is the potential for disease outbreak, particularly norovirus, which causes vomiting and diarrhea.

"Housekeeping, others are probably working double shifts to keep the mess clean and wipe down and sanitize all the common areas," said Herring, who worked for Carnival from 2002 to 2004 and spent four months on the Triumph.

Cause of fire still unknown

Carnival hasn't determined what caused the fire, said Oliva, the company spokeswoman.

The National Transportation Safety Board announced Tuesday it has opened an investigation into the cause of the fire. The NTSB said the Bahamas Maritime Agency will lead the investigation because the ship carries a Bahamian flag.

The ship was originally going to be towed to a port in Progreso, Mexico, but after currents pushed it northward, the company decided to take it to Alabama, saying it would make it easier for passengers without passports to get home.

Cahill said Carnival has reserved more than 1,500 hotel rooms in Mobile and New Orleans for Thursday. The company plans to return passengers back to Houston on Friday using charter flights.

A similar situation occurred on a Carnival cruise ship in November 2010. That vessel, named Splendor, was stranded with 4,500 people aboard after a fire in the engine room. When the passengers disembarked in San Diego, they described a nightmarish three days in the Pacific with limited food, power and bathroom access.

Cahill said the Spendor's fire was different because it involved a "catastrophic explosion" in a diesel generator, and the Triumph's fire had "some other cause." He could not say what the economic impact will be due to the fire aboard the Triumph. The impact from the Splendor was $40 million, he said.

Carnival cancelled the Triumph's next two voyages, scheduled to depart Monday and Saturday. Passengers aboard the stranded ship will also receive a full refund.

With files from the CBC