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Conditions aboard the powerless cruise line Carnival Triumph.(CNN) – The Carnival Triumph was towed into the port in Mobile, Alabama, amid cheers after more than 4,200 people spent an extra three days on a filthy, disabled ship.

Once the ship was tied up at the dock, getting all the passengers off was expected to take four or five hours, said Carnival Cruise Lines Vice President Terry Thornton.

The company said 100 motor coaches were available for passengers who asked to be taken back to Galveston, Texas, where the cruise started.

The Triumph was on its way home Sunday when a fire left the vessel drifting in Gulf of Mexico currents.

It was Sunday morning that a fire broke out in the engine room on the Carnival Triumph, leaving the ship adrift in the Gulf of Mexico.

The vessel eased into port Thursday night.

Why did it take five days to rescue the 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew members on board?

The answer is not simple.

It involves a handful of big decisions and some environmental factors outside anyone’s control.

Here are three reasons why the process has taken as long as it has:

1. Carnival Cruise Lines decided to tow the ship back to port.

Citing safety concerns, the company opted to tow the ship, rather than move passengers to another vessel.

“We evaluated a wide range of options including using another ship to transport guests, but the safest solution was towing the ship back to port. We have a huge team involving multiple departments working around the clock to get our guests home as quickly as possible,” Carnival said on its Facebook page.

Spokesman Vance Gulliksen elaborated in an e-mail.

“Regarding why we didn’t use another cruise ship, we checked on this and all of our ships are in service right now, meaning that there aren’t enough cabins available to accommodate more than 3,100 guests who are currently on the Triumph. Additionally, a ship-to-ship transfer at sea would be considered too risky,” he said.

2. Strong currents pushed the ship north, prompting the company to change where the Carnival Triumph would dock.

After deciding the ship had to be towed, the cruise company chose as its destination the closest port, which was then Progreso, Mexico.

But soon after the decision was made, and before tugboats could take control, strong currents nudged the ship some 90 miles north, putting it nearly as close to Mobile, Alabama, as to Progreso.

“Given the strength of the currents, it is preferable to head north to Mobile, rather than attempt to tow against them,” the company said on its Facebook page.

The U.S. port had another advantage.

It provided easier re-entry for passengers and crew, particularly for the roughly 900 guests on board traveling without passports, Carnival said.

3. The sheer size of the task is staggering.

The Carnival Triumph is a beast of a ship. It is 14 stories, nearly 900 feet long and is carrying more than 4,000 people.

Moving it anywhere takes a tremendous amount of time, energy and calculation.

It traveled up a channel Thursday toward Mobile, a process that typically takes two to three hours.

But because tugboats go slower than ships sailing at their normal speeds, that same trip was expected to take seven to 10 hours, said Gulliksen, the Carnival spokesman.

The journey was further delayed for four hours when the towline from the lead tugboat to the ship snapped, and another tug pushing the ship broke a bit.

Even once the ship docked, Carnival officials said it would take four to five hours to get everyone off, which will likely seem like an eternity to those waiting to see loved ones.

“We have to clear all of the decks, section by section, with first priority to guests with special needs and children,” said Gulliksen.

“The entire process is quite involved, given that there are more than 3,100 passengers and nearly 1,100 crew, and this is compounded by the ship only operating on emergency power,” he said.

Cruise ship towed to harbor(CNN) — Squalid, smelly and steamy, the crippled ship Carnival Triumph limped toward port Thursday, its passengers and crew looking forward to an end to their hellish cruise.

The laborious slog through the Gulf of Mexico tested not only the senses of the thousands on board, but their patience as well.

Rough weather overnight slowed the Triumph and the tugboats leading it to Mobile, Alabama. The ship, now accompanied by four tugboats, is expected to arrive at the port between 8 and 11 p.m. (9 p.m. to midnight ET), according to the latest guidance. At one point it had been expected as early as 3 p.m.

It’s been a nightmare five days for the 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew members on board the 900-foot, 14-story Triumph, where a fire broke out in the engine room early Sunday.

Much of the ship’s electrical power went down in the fire, causing widespread malfunctions, including taking out sanitary systems.

On Wednesday, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter from Mobile transferred 3,000 pounds of equipment, including a generator to help provide power on the Triumph.

Passengers have reported sewage sloshing around in hallways, flooded rooms and trouble getting enough to eat.

“It’s disgusting. It’s the worst thing ever,” passenger Ann Barlow said.

A ‘floating petri dish’

Jorge Rodriguez, a doctor of internal medicine, said the sordid conditions on board make the Triumph a “floating petri dish.”

“So far, there hasn’t been an outbreak of anything, but … it’s in the Gulf. It’s warm,” he said. “You don’t have sanitary conditions, so hopefully they’ll get back to shore … before anything breaks out.”

Raw sewage is a major health risk, Rodriguez said, but respiratory infections could also spread quickly. Spoiling food could unleash E. coli bacteria, salmonella and other types of food poisoning.

“People on that cruise need to be careful for the next day to couple of weeks,” he said. “They may have contracted something that’s just sort of festering under the surface and won’t come to full-blown infectious status for the next couple of weeks.”

Carnival promises an army of about 200 employees will take care of its passengers once they clear customs.

Passengers can board buses to Galveston or Houston, Texas, or spend the night in a hotel in New Orleans.

Carnival said it has reserved and arranged approximately 100 motor coaches, more than 1,500 New Orleans hotel rooms, multiple charter flights from New Orleans to Houston on Friday and transportation from Houston to the Port of Galveston so that guests may retrieve their cars if they drove to the port.

Compensation for travelers

The cruise line said it would give each passenger $500, a free flight home, a full refund for their trip and for most expenses on board, as well as a credit for another cruise.

Brent Nutt, whose wife, Bethany, is on the ship, said it’s not worth it.

“First of all, we only paid $350 for her to go on this cruise. Her safety and her well-being are worth a whole lot more than $350,” he said.

And the free stuff?

“I promise you, none of my family members that are on there will probably ever, ever take another cruise,” he said.

The Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board launched an investigation into the cause of the engine room fire. Because the Carnival Triumph is a Bahamian-flagged vessel, the Bahamas Maritime Authority is the primary investigative agency.

Passenger rights

Travelers have few options for compensation in these cases, other than what the cruise line is already offering, according to travel expert Jason Clampet of, a travel website.

“The passengers on the ship aren’t going to have a great deal of recourse when they get home,” he said. Travel “insurance really doesn’t cover this sort of thing. Their trip wasn’t interrupted and they aren’t incurring extra expenses … so they can’t be compensated that way.”

Still, there’s no denying that the fire and resulting bad PR will hurt Carnival.

“It’s a terrible sight, thinking of people trapped on a ship with limited food and filthy conditions, so I think people will think twice about taking a cruise,” Clampet said.

The tension grows

Nerves are frayed on board, where passengers have waited in food lines for as long as four hours, said Nick Ware, whose mother is on the ship with her boyfriend. Ware said arguments are breaking out after people at the front of lines grab as many provisions as they can.

“The person in the front of the line is allowed to take however much he wants, so people see the person in front of them taking too much, (and) they start to get concerned they’re not going to get any,” Ware said.

People at the rear of the line ended up with buns and condiments — no burger patties, he said.

Meanwhile, on shore, Kim McKerreghan waited at the Port of Mobile, worried about her 10-year-old daughter and her ex-husband.

Her daughter called her in a panic Sunday after the fire broke out.

McKerreghan said the call was absolutely “gut-wrenching.”

“Momma, please just come get me, just come get me. It’s so hot. I don’t want to be here, Momma. Come get me, please,” the scared daughter told her, McKerreghan said. “Your heart stops, your stomach knots up and you just want to fall to the ground.”

Bad luck before

The fire is at least the second problem for the ship since late January, when it had an issue with its propulsion system, according to a notice posted on the website of Carnival senior cruise director John Heald.

And it’s not the first fire to disable one of the cruise line’s ships.

In 2010, the Carnival cruise ship Splendor lost power after an engine room fire, leaving it drifting off the Pacific coast of Mexico. The USS Ronald Reagan ferried 60,000 pounds of supplies for the ship’s passengers and crew as the ship was towed to San Diego.

Anxious family members

McKerreghan drove from Texas with a friend, Mary Poret, whose preteen daughter is on board, with Poret’s ex-husband.

Poret also received a frightening call from her daughter, about 30 hours after the fire.

“She was hysterical, crying hysterically. She was scared. She don’t know what was going to happen next,” Poret said.

“And what broke my heart the very most was her saying, ‘Mommy, I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again,’ and that’s really hard to hear from your 12-year-old daughter.”

After this ill-fated cruise, the Triumph won’t host vacationing passengers until at least mid-April. Carnival has canceled a dozen voyages scheduled between February 21 and April 13. That makes a total of 14 scratched trips. The cruise line already had eliminated voyages slated for February 11 and February 16.

CNN’s Rich Phillips, Tom Watkins, Chandler Friedman, Victor Blackwell, Tristan Smith, Joe Sutton, Mike Ahlers, Dave Alsup, Sandra Endo, Chuck Johnston, Esprit Smith, Greg Botelho, Katia Hetter and Marnie Hunter contributed to this report.