Nov. 10, 2010 -- Passengers aboard the ailing Carnival Splendor began getting a strong enough cellular signal to make phone calls out to worried friends and families today, telling those on land that they pass their time playing cards and waiting for Coast Guard food drops.
Passenger Gordon Gilbreath told ABC's San Diego affiliate KGTV that after initial fear and uncertainty, they were in better spirits knowing the Coast Guard was nearby.
"A lot of people that are in the inside cabins, it's been pitch black for several days and most of those folks have been up on the decks and a lot of them have been sleeping on the decks with their blankets and so on," Gilbreath said.
"You know it gets cold, like during the night it's been pretty cold so the rooms get cold, so we've got a lot of extra blankets," he said. "It's been quite an ordeal, I have to tell you."
Monday morning, when an engine room fire knocked out power to the hulking cruise ship, passengers were scared, knowing they were all alone in the middle of the ocean, he said.
"The first day or two like when we were in a complete blackout and there was no power at all, you know, we were just kind of floating out in the ocean with absolutely nothing," Gilbreath said. "Now people are doing a lot better."
With the slow trip back to port in San Diego now underway, passengers are left to contend with the monotony of passing time on the mostly powerless ship. After several days adrift and only some of the ships toilets now properly functioning, there were reports that the ship smells badly. And there are complaints that the bars are closed.
And while friends and family members anxiously await their return, passengers booked up on upcoming Splendor cruises wonder what will become of their vacations.
David Zambrano, an employee of Denver news station 9 News, called into work on Wednesday after getting a signal on his phone.
"You stand in line for two hours just to get your food because everybody goes to the same place to pick up their food. And, so you stand in line and you wait, then once you get your food, you leave and you look for something to do," Zambrano said, according to a report on the station's website.
He described the ship's crew members as abandoning their regular duties to tend to the passengers round the clock.
"People are playing cards. People are standing around just kind of talking. They're getting to socialize," Zambrano said. "It's not what you would expect on a normal cruise, of course not, but ... they're doing their best."
Carnival announced today that in addition to the intermittent cell signals, the ship's phones are also working on a limited basis and guests will be allowed to make complimentary calls home.
Family Members Relieved
The ship, currently being towed by a tugboat named "Chihuhahua," is expected to reach San Diego on Thursday, and hundreds of families will breathe a collective sigh of relief.
"I know they're OK and they're being fed and everything's fine, but [I'm] just worried because I haven't been able to hear from her," San Pedro, Calif., resident Toni Sweet said of her cousin Vicki Alvarez, who is stuck on the ship with her husband Fernando Alvarez.
Sweet said she was stunned when she heard about the accident.
"I was sitting here watching the news and it's like, 'Oh no way. They can't be on that cruise,'" she said.
The vacation was a rarity for the Alvarezes, who were taking a "long-deserved" break after years of caring for their seriously ill parents, who have both since passed away.
"She was nervous before she ever left," Sweet said, "She said, ' I can't do this, I've never been away from my kids, my family.'"
Though Carnival has offered the Splendor passengers a full refund, plus transportation costs and a free subsequent cruise, Sweet said she's unsure her family will benefit from the last part.
"It's going to take a lot to get her back out there again, I think," she said. "A lot."
Carnival Disaster Leaves Future Passengers Wondering
Bernice Spreckman, a legislator from Westchester County, N.Y., is traveling on the ship with a group of 40 to 50 seniors from Yonkers, N.Y.
Westchester County Board of Legislators spokeswoman Tara Martin said they were praying for Spreckman's safe return, but that the feisty 75-year-old "was probably running the ship by now."
"She's a Yonkers girl. She's tough. She's tough as nails," Martin said.
"We know it's a very unpleasant situation," she aid. "They were looking forward to a vacation, and what they've gotten is stranded at sea."
While Carnival's main priority is getting the 4,466 stranded passengers and crew back on dry land, passengers booked on upcoming cruises scheduled for the Splendor are left wondering what this vacation disaster will mean for their own plans.
"We're supposed to leave Dec. 5," Woodland Hills, Calif., resident Tracy Krell said of a family trip on the Splendor that was booked more than a year ago. "My mom has been trying to contact her representative."
Carnival has announced it will be canceling its Nov. 14 cruise on the Splendor that was scheduled to depart from Long Beach.
Though Krell is hopeful that she and eight other members of her family will still get to go on time, maybe just on a different Carnival ship, "my mom is definitely freaking out."
Krell read from a series of text messages she's gotten from her mother so far.
"It's all over the news, check your computer. I'm so sick over this," her mother wrote shortly after news of the stranded ship made headlines.
And then, just today: "If worse comes to worst, we can rent a rowboat."