Hell on the high seas
Garden City woman among passengers on ill-fated cruise.
Garden City woman among passengers on ill-fated cruise.
By TIM UNRUH
Special to The Telegram
Friendships forged in grade school survived a cruise that began as planned but ended in a hellish ordeal.
Eight women who spent their childhoods in Osborne collected much more to reminisce about well into their golden years after a cruise to Mexico went sour.
Keely Emerson was among the chums who were on the Carnival cruise ship Triumph — with more than 4,200 passengers and crew — that stalled after an engine fire early Feb. 10 in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Everything was fine up until that point,” said Emerson, of Abilene, a licensed practical nurse who works at St. Francis Community Services of Salina.
The friends, who had been planning the cruise for two years, met up at Galveston, Texas, and set sail Feb. 7.
“We’ve had a lot of memories over the years, and this adds to it,” said Cheryl Schmale, of Garden City.
Everything went as planned through their visit to Cozumel, Mexico, before the ship headed back toward the States.
Alpha team called
“I just remember we woke up, hearing them call, ‘Alpha team to the engine room.’ It was, like, 5 in the morning,” Emerson recalled. “We all got up. Just that name, alpha team, got us wondering.”
Next, they smelled smoke.
The women were on the second deck in the belly of the ship, with one floor of cabins below them.
They got dressed, grabbed their life jackets and were headed to the muster deck, a place where passengers gather before a ship leaves port, to review safety procedures.
“They announced it was no emergency, that they’d had a small fire and we’d be leaving in a couple of hours,” Emerson said. “That did not pan out.”
The ship lost all electrical power, she said, which meant there was no air conditioning in the cabins, and with no windows to open on their deck, conditions became steamy.
“We initially had flushing toilets,” Emerson said.
That changed, too.
Up to the deck
“We dragged mattresses up to the muster station deck, and that’s where we stayed the rest of the cruise,” she said.
At that point, Emerson said, the vacation became less of a cruise and more a matter of enduring conditions that became harsh, while the climate slowly changed from tropical back to the cold they had endeavored to escape.
Toilets were lost, hallways flooded and passengers and crew were forced to improvise. Plastic bags stretched over a bucket became a replacement for the toilet.
“You could shower with cold water, but the stuff wouldn’t drain. The ship had a 7-degree tilt and it wasn’t uncommon for the sewer to back up into your drains,” Emerson said. “The smell was horrible.”
The ship free-floated for 90 miles until two tugboats arrived Feb. 12 to tow it home to Mobile, Ala. Everyone onboard was relieved, she said.
By then, shoes “squished” in the stench while walking in hallways. Some people slipped on slick floors and down stairways, Emerson said.
“Along the edges in the dining room, there was 6 to 9 inches of flowing liquid,” she said. “I can’t tell you what it was. I didn’t want to find out.”
No one ever went hungry or thirsty, Emerson said, but the wait in line for a meal would last up to three hours. Other Carnival ships delivered provisions and the U.S. Coast Guard twice arrived with supplies by helicopter.
“We had a lot of sandwiches and fruit. The people at the end of the line didn’t get the better food,” she said.
Later in the week, emotions began to surface.
“People had had enough. Tempers were getting shorter,” Emerson said.
Some in the front of the food lines were hoarding food, she said.
“They were scared they weren’t getting another meal. People at the end of the line saw others coming out with huge platters of food,” she said. Some harsh words were exchanged, Emerson said, but she never witnessed any physical altercations.
But for the friends from the Osborne High School Class of 1981, who were on the cruise to celebrate turning 50 this year, friendships were never tested.
“We probably kept each other more sane than anything,” Emerson said. “There were times when you were ready to have a meltdown, and we’d talk each other through it.”
It was the first cruise for Schmale and Lisa Geist of Osborne.
“We all tried to keep each other upbeat. We made the best of what we could and laughed,” Schmale said.
There wasn’t much contact with those back home, however, said Schmale’s husband in Garden City, Frank Schmale Jr.
“We got a couple of texts from (Cheryl) right after it took place, but we really weren’t in contact until another ship came by and they were able to get cell service,” he said. “I wasn’t so much concerned for her safety, but her being in that type of environment.”
There were screams of joy when the tugboats arrived, Emerson said, but the ship “was just creeping” during the tow home. Days and nights were long.
“You just had to sit there and let the day pass. It did get really old,” she said.
Some of the monotony lifted when helicopters from CNN and other news agencies appeared.
One bright spot was that the crew maintained a great attitude, Emerson said.
“They’re probably what kept everybody going,” she said. “I’ve been a nurse for a long time, but the filth they had to clean up was disgusting.”
The ship arrived in Mobile on Friday. Emerson had a sweater, but most brought no winter attire and left the ship in white bathrobes owned by the cruise line.
Once on land, tears were common among the Osborne classmates.
Carnival passengers were informed they were due a refund for the cruise, a voucher for another cruise and a $500 check, Cheryl Schmale said, and there may be reimbursements for other expenses.
Schmale was among four of the women who took a bus to Galveston; they drove home from there. Emerson and three others rode a bus to New Orleans and flew home. She arrived at her home near Abilene Friday night.
Emerson said she would take another cruise. Schmale isn’t sure.
“We’re just glad to be home and safe,” Schmale said. “You couldn’t ask for a better group of friends.”