Stranded ship passengers get Spam, Pop-Tarts

The disabled cruise ship Carnival Splendor is being towed toward San Diego, while passengers sat in dark rooms and ate cold food. including Spam and Pop-Tarts.
Navy personnel work on the deck of the USS Ronald Reagan as the Carnival Splendor cruise ship sits off the Baja Peninsula of Mexico on Tuesday. ((Gregory Bull/Associated Press))

The disabled cruise ship Carnival Splendor was being towed toward San Diego by tugboats Wednesday while passengers sat in dark rooms and ate cold food including Spam and Pop-Tarts. 

The 290-metre ship has crept into cellphone range and the onboard phone system is working on a limited basis, allowing passengers mostly cut off from communication since an engine fire Monday to finally reach their loved ones.

Officials said the ship could arrive in San Diego as early as midday Thursday.

The 3,299 passengers had been planning a seven-day jaunt on the Mexican Riviera.

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Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs said Wednesday that it's trying to determine whether any Canadians are aboard. The Canadian mission in Mexico is working closely with the cruise line and local authorities and will provide consular assistance to Canadians as required, a statement said.

The ship, which was also carrying 1,167 crew, began moving again Tuesday when a Mexican tugboat arrived. Rocking gently with the waves, the ship moved slowly with a coast guard boat along one side and the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier on the ship's other side. There were no visible signs of damage.

Ship adrift since Monday morning

The ship was 320 kilometres south of San Diego and about 70 kilometres offshore when an engine room fire Monday morning killed its power and set it adrift.

No one was hurt, but the passengers and crew were left without air conditioning, hot water, cellphone or internet service. The ship's auxiliary power allowed for working toilets and cold water.

U.S. navy Seahawk helicopters were ferrying supplies, including Spam, crabmeat, croissants and Pop-Tarts to the ship from the USS Ronald Reagan, an aircraft carrier that reached the Splendor after it was diverted from training manoeuvres to help.

People were trying to keep their spirits up by singing, socializing and playing cards, said passenger David Zambrano, who managed to get cellphone service Wednesday and called his employer, Denver TV station 9NEWS.

The ship's bars, casinos, pools and upper deck were closed. Rooms in the interior of the ship were dark, and passengers propped open their doors to let in air and emergency lighting from the hallways.

"So really, all we're doing is just kind of hanging out on a boat waiting for the next mealtime," Zambrano said.

Two-hour wait for food

But when mealtime comes, there's a two-hour wait for food, which is cold.

"It's almost like a diet cruise because we've been eating salads and fruit and small sandwiches," Zambrano said. "It's nothing like anyone expected, no."

The Splendor only had enough food to last through midday Tuesday because refrigerators on the ship stopped working after the power was knocked out, navy Cmdr. Greg Hicks said. But thousands of kilograms of food had been delivered by Tuesday night.

The U.S. Coast Guard and Mexican navy also sent resources to the ship, which is now being pulled by two tugboats.

The tugboats were originally set to take the Splendor to Ensenada, Mexico, but the cruise line changed its plans and wants it towed to San Diego, where hotel and flight arrangements will await the passengers, Carnival said.

Carnival first planned to haul the ship to the Mexican port of Ensenada, not far from a movie studio complex used to film Titanic, and bus passengers to the U.S. But the cruise line decided they would be more comfortable on board, spokesman Vance Gulliksen said.

Passengers in good spirits

Zambrano said passengers were overjoyed to hear they were heading straight back to California and wouldn't have to go through the tedious customs process at the border.

"When they said they were towing us to San Diego instead of Ensenada, the cheer could be heard all the way around the boat," he said. "Everybody was screaming and then every time the rescues boat shows up, people run to the side and they cheer and they wave and they take pictures."

Carnival Corp.'s stock was down about one per cent Tuesday.

The situation will be costly for Carnival, which is refunding passengers, offering vouchers for future cruises and may have to dry dock the ship if the damage is extensive.

Accidents like the engine-room fire are rare, said Monty Mathisen, of the New York-based publication Cruise Industry News.

The last major cruise-ship accident was in 2007, when a ship with more than 1,500 people sank after hitting rocks near the Aegean island of Santorini, Mathisen said. Two French tourists died.

With files from CBC News