Nov. 9, 2010 -- A U.S. Coast Guard cutter has reached a damaged Carnival cruise ship stranded off the western coast of Mexico since early Monday morning, with nearly 4,500 passengers and crew onboard after an engine-room fire.
Two Coast Guard officers are now onboard the ship to help ensure the passengers' safety until two tugboats chartered by Carnival arrive and are able tow the ship to a Mexican port. The tugboats are expected to arrive midday today.
Carnival confirmed that three people on the ship were treated in the ship's infirmary for panic attacks, and a Coast Guard spokesman said no major medical problems had been reported. No one was injured in the fire.
The Carnival Splendor, a 113,000-ton behemoth, suffered an engine fire early Monday morning that knocked out the ship's power, including air conditioning, hot food service, flushing toilets and telephones, Carnival said in a statement. The fire was extinguished in about three hours.
The Coast Guard had boarded the ship while it was still in port in California the day before the fire, ABC News has learned, but a Coast Guard spokesperson declined to comment on the purpose of the visit because it is part of the investigation into the fire.
"I can't say about that specific cruise ship, but the Coast Guard regularly conducts safety and security boardings aboard all sorts of vessels," USCG spokesperson Petty Officer Pamela Manns told ABC News. "It's part of how we do business."
In a Facebook posting Sunday evening, Carnival's senior cruise director John Heald complained that the Coast Guard was conducting tests of the ship's generators and had shut down the elevators.
Aircraft Carrier, Cutter Assists 'Difficult Operation' to Pull in Vessel
Even after the tugboats reach the ship at midday today, it could be at least 24 hours before it could be safely towed to the Mexican port of Ensenada, the cruiseline said in a statement Tuesday morning.
"My parents are stuck in the middle of the ocean on a Carnival Cruise! WTF!" California resident Joel Colmenares posted on Facebook. "And my mom is terrified of ships and large bodies of water! Hope I get to hear from them soon."
A U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, has also been diverted from current operations to provide assistance, the Navy said in a statement. The ship will transport 35 pallets of supplies to the area which will then be taken to the Splendor by helicopter. The supplies came at the request of the Coast Guard, the statement said.
The Coast Guard cutter will stay with the ship until it is docked, to ensure that the potentially hazardous open-water tugging operation succeeds.
"It's a difficult operation anytime tugs get under way to tow such a large ship, there's a lot of people onboard," Petty Officer Pamela Manns, a Coast Guard spokewoman, told ABC News. "Certainly this is unusual for a cruise ship and the size of the cruise ship and the passengers onboard."
The ship's crew is actively working to restore partial services, Carnival said, and it has been running some operations on auxiliary generators in the meantime for the two-year-old ship. The guests have been provided with cold food.
The port in Ensenada is equipped to receive cruise ships the size of the Splendor, Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen told ABC News. From there, the passengers will be bused back the 150 kilometers to California.
The company does not know yet how extensive the damage to the ship's engine is, or how it could affect future voyages.
Passengers to Get Money Back, Free Cruise
"We know this has been an extremely trying situation for our guests, and we sincerely thank them for their patience," said Gerry Cahill, president and chief executive officer of Carnival Cruise Lines. "Conditions onboard the ship are very challenging, and we sincerely apologize for the discomfort and inconvenience our guests are currently enduring."
Carnival said it would provide passengers a full refund for the current trip and would offer a complimentary future cruise "equal to the amount paid for this voyage."
The ship was on the first leg of a seven-day cruise on the Mexican Riviera. It departed from Long Beach, Calif., Sunday. It was scheduled to stop in Puerta Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas, then return to Long Beach.
Carnival is the world's biggest cruise ship operator with lines including Holland America, Princess and Cunard.
Another Carnival ship was stranded with more than 2,000 passengers this summer due to a "technical malfunction." The problem was fixed within hours, however, and the ship was able to complete it's trip about three hours behind schedule, according to a report by USA Today.
In 2006, a fire on the Star Princess cruise ship, which is run by Princess Cruises, killed one person and injured 11 others. At least 100 rooms were scorched, but the nearly 3,000 passengers did not have to abandon ship.
In 2003, eight crew members aboard Norwegian Cruise Lines' Norway died in an engine-room explosion.
Carolyn Brown, editor-in-chief for CruiseCritic.com, said that the passengers of the Splendor were actually lucky the engines stopped functioning so close to the coast, rather than further out in open ocean and that the situation looks to be under control.
"Let's put it this way, nobody was injured. They're handling it," Brown told ABC News. "It's not ideal, and certainly it's not what you want to do on your vacation, but frankly, these people are going to have some stories to tell and I think they'll be good dinner party guests for decades to come."