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Crippled cruise ship reaches San Diego

Karen Blocker, an early riser, was about to head off for an elegant breakfast of eggs Benedict when the walls of her stateroom aboard a cruise ship bound for the Mexican Riviera began to shake. Then the public address system crackled to life, summoning the crew of the Carnival Splendor to the engine room.

She opened her door onto a smoky hallway. The ship slowed, then stopped. At that point, the 50-year-old human resources manager from Phoenix was certain of just one thing: She had to get out of her room — and fast.

What she did not know until later was that a fire had erupted in the Splendor’s aft engine room, rendering the 952-foot vessel with nearly 4,500 passengers and crew members aboard powerless and adrift in the ocean about 150 miles southwest of San Diego.

The Splendor had left Long Beach on Sunday night for a seven-day excursion, with plans to stop in Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas. But at 6 a.m. Monday “the whole ship started to shake and the power went off,” said Mike Hall, 36. “We were in the dark. And we knew something bad had happened.”

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If the trip had ended Sunday, said Hall, who works for a Las Vegas cable TV company, “it would have been the most fabulous trip ever.” Instead, his part of the ship was without flush toilets for two days. Passengers had to scoop up their own waste and dump it in receptacles at another location.

After 72 hours without air conditioning, hot food, telephone service, laundry or any of the pleasures of a luxury cruise, the Splendor was towed to San Diego on Thursday morning. Passengers disembarked 50 at a time, as a contrite voice blared over a shipside loudspeaker: “Thank you for your understanding, and we hope you come back real soon.”

Greeted by anxious family members, the snakebit passengers — aching for a good meal and hot water — were ready to talk about a dream vacation that went badly awry.

Spencer Reeves complained most about the boredom. The 15-year-old from Huntington Beach, who was cruising with two dozen family members, said “you have to make your own fun. I like bowling with ketchup bottles and cereal boxes. I can’t wait to take a hot shower.”

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When the captain announced that the ship had drifted 60 miles and would have to be towed back to shore, Angela Flores said she burst into tears. The 29-year-old from Visalia was traveling with her husband and young daughter, and all she could think was, “Oh, my God, we’re going to sink in the middle of the ocean,” she recalled.

Flores remembers the smell of human waste, rotten food and sour milk. And she turned unhappily away when she heard the shipboard band strike up a ballad from the movie “Titanic.”

“I didn’t want to hear that song,” she said, “in the middle of the ocean.”

Josh and Ashley Vest of Fullerton, who were married last year, were on a belated honeymoon aboard the Splendor. It had taken them a while to save the $1,500 fare, and, at first, the twentysomethings thought their trip was ruined.

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But on Tuesday, the Mexican tugboat Chihuahua arrived, and the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan positioned itself nearby as a platform for Navy helicopters to shuttle food and supplies to the crippled cruise ship.

“It was suddenly like, ‘Hey, we’re not out here alone,’” Vest said. “They’re going to rescue us. After that, it was just a matter of time, to hold on. The food was lousy. The bar in our area was closed. But it wasn’t too hot aboard the ship, and there was music and games.”

Senior cruise director John Heald said he spent much of his time during the aborted cruise on the public address system, trying to keep passengers updated and the mood light. “I have no idea how that’s going over,” he wrote on a blog from the stranded Splendor.

Heald described the crew as “absolutely epic” and the guests “magnificent.” He was not, however, as magnanimous about his own personal hygiene. “I don’t smell of roses at the best of times but as the laundry is not working and I only have two pairs of underpants I smell like Paris on a hot summer’s day,” he wrote. “That’s Paris the city not Paris the … person.”

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Cyber-sympathy was slim this week for the stranded passengers on the Splendor. Yes, their excursion was scary and smelly. But the seas were calm, the weather was good and they were still on vacation.

“When something unexpected happens,” posted one stoic former cruiser, “you put on your big-girl pants, and you deal with it.” Grumped another: “If this is considered an ‘ordeal,’ then it’s official: Americans have now become the biggest wusses on the planet.” Joked a third: “Maybe this could be a new idea for a diet reality show! Board a ship, and get stranded offshore with only spam to eat!”

Oh, and about that Spam? Passenger reports to the contrary, it really wasn’t a menu option.

At least that’s Carnival’s official line, compliments of company tweets Thursday: “Carnival Splendor guests were never served SPAM!” And, 23 minutes later: “In regards to our last post, we wanted to clarify that while some SPAM was delivered, it was never served to guests.”

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So, what was on the menu? Not the 24-room service and “delectable dining” Carnival advertises. This week’s aborted voyage gave lie to the company website, which promises prospective passengers that they can “Eat whatever you like, whenever you like. Hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, salads, roast beef, chicken, fish, broccoli, rice, potatoes, ice cream, cake, pie, cookies.... Do we need to go on?”

According to passengers disembarking in San Diego, there was hot dog salad, green bean sandwiches, cereal, Pop Tarts, hot dogs mixed with deviled eggs, bottled water. And, said Chris Harlan, a dental technical from Buena Park, the famously maligned canned meat, which he said he refused: “I’m not paying this kind of money to eat Spam.”

Twenty bucks more could have gotten him a commemorative T-shirt from an entrepreneurial street vendor that proclaimed: “I Survived the 2010 Carnival Cruise Spamcation.”

Provisions were delivered via naval convoy, flown from Coronado to the Ronald Reagan and then shuttled by helicopter to the limping liner. They began arriving Tuesday and went fast.

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“The food lines were two hours, and when you got up there sometimes there was nothing left,” said Marques Horace, 34, a Los Angeles actor who boarded the ship for a birthday celebration that was “totally ruined.”

“The sandwiches went in the first hour,” he said. “A lot of people got very grumpy about that. I’ll never go on another cruise again.”

On the other hand, by Tuesday night free booze began to flow and spirits picked up considerably.

“Everybody got a morale boost when they came over the loudspeaker and said, ‘Raid the mini-bars!’” said Levant Kerry, 69, a retired manufacturer from British Columbia who was traveling with his wife, Barbara. “There were cheers all over the ship.”

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Candice Van Leeuwen passed on the beer — free, but warm — and opted instead for the champagne — also free and warm. She had gotten married Nov. 6 and disembarked Thursday from her honeymoon cruise aboard the Splendor still sporting her wedding veil.

“My husband and I got to be together the whole time,” said the 30-year-old from Moreno Valley, sanguine as only newlyweds can be. “What’s wrong with that?”

tony.perry@latimes.com

richard.marosi@latimes.com

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maria.laganga@latimes.com


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