By Patrick Svitek and Ellen Hirst
1:37 PM CST, February 15, 2013
Sandeep Berry and her mother startled awake to a burning stench around 5 a.m. Sunday on the Carnival Cruise Lines ship Triumph, somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico.
"We just started smelling smoke and freaking out," recalled Berry, a 30-year-old information technology recruiter from Evanston. "We opened the door, and people were running everywhere with life jackets on."
Nearly seven hours later in Evanston, her husband Tom's phone rang. On the other end: a brief automated message from Carnival describing an "engine fire" aboard his wife's ship.
"They were kind of vague, but they did mention everyone is safe," recalled Tom Berry, a 34-year-old software engineer.
The stranded cruise ship docked late Thursday night in Mobile, Ala., ending a harrowing saga for more than 3,000 passengers who anticipated touching dry land Monday, but a broken tow line Thursday afternoon delayed that arrival by another seven to 10 hours, Carnival said.
Berry's feet touched land for the first time in more than a week just after midnight Friday morning. She landed around 9:30 a.m. at O'Hare International Airport, she said via text message.
For Sandeep Berry, the ill-fated voyage was supposed to be a belated celebration of her mother's 57th birthday. Instead the two spent four days dodging knee-deep raw sewage, waiting in food lines for nearly three hours at a time and watching helplessly as rescue vessels were battered by the stormy ocean.
"It just got worse," Berry said Thursday morning via cellphone from the ship.
"It doesn't seem like they've ever had a plan in place for this to happen," she added, describing a supportive but beleaguered staff confronted with a nightmare scenario.
The worst part, she said, is the filthy flood of human waste blanketing the ship.
She said the raw sewage was "seeping down from the top to the bottom" of the ship because passengers had used bathrooms Sunday without knowing about the power outage. Balcony rooms have been mostly spared, she said.
A few men helped Berry and her mother, Balbir Singh, drag their mattresses to the outdoor deck, where they've been sleeping for most of the week to avoid the sewage.
Passengers were eventually urged to defecate in biohazard bags.
Weary travelers have been swarming the ship's "very few" working power outlets, Berry said. She was able to charge her cellphone after some passengers plugged in extension cords.
They've also rushed to whichever side of the ship is receiving rescue supplies, hoping to latch onto the Wi-Fi network of whatever boat is delivering the goods.
Still, passengers have been stuck with "a lot of fruit" and "a lot of salad," said Berry, a vegetarian. She joked that when she's finished waiting for one meal, she might as well get in line for the next because of the lines.
Although his wife reported "a couple broken hips" and some food hoarding among fellow passengers, Tom Berry said she mostly disagreed with news reports depicting the situation as "catastrophic."
"Of course, on the outside, I'm freaking out," he said.
Sandeep Berry said her mother is an "adventurer" and has been "calm through all of it," even getting excited about Carnival's promise of a free cruise voucher for all affected passengers. The cruise line is also offering $500 to each passenger, which Berry called a "ridiculous" gesture given how much time she had to take off from work.
Berry must now confront a tough question: Will she keep her reservation for an English cruise this summer?
"At this point, we'll probably go," she said. "But when I get home, I'm telling Tom we need a balcony room."
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