SAN DIEGO — Two tugboats slowly pulled a disabled cruise ship with nearly 4,500 passengers and crew toward San Diego on Wednesday.
The 952-foot Carnival Splendor crept into cell phone range and the onboard phone system started working on a limited basis, allowing passengers mostly cut off from communication since an engine fire Monday to finally reach their loved ones.
Officials said the ship could arrive in San Diego as early as mid-day Thursday.
Among those making calls was David Zambrano, who phoned his employer, Denver TV station 9NEWS, to describe what was happening on the ship. He said people were trying to keep their spirits up by singing, socializing and playing cards.
The ship’s bars, casinos, pools and the upper deck were closed. Rooms in the interior of the ship were pitch black and passengers propped open their doors to let in air and emergency lighting from the hallways.
"So really, all we’re doing is just kind of hanging out on a boat waiting for the next mealtime," Zambrano said.
Mealtime requires a two-hour wait for cold food. Passengers have been subsisting on Spam, Pop Tarts and canned crabmeat flown in by Navy helicopters.
"It’s almost like a diet cruise because we’ve been eating salads and fruit and small sandwiches," Zambrano said. "It’s nothing like anyone expected, no."
The Splendor left Long Beach on Sunday for a seven-day trip to the Mexican Riviera.
On Wednesday, it was 125 miles south of San Diego and was expected to arrive Thursday afternoon or evening if the weather remained good, U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Rick Foster said. No storms were forecast.
The journey hit more glitches when a second tugboat sent to help the first was forced to turn back because it wasn’t powerful enough, and a third was hooked up Wednesday morning and pulling with no problem, Coast Guard officials said.
Carnival first planned to haul the ship to the Mexican port of Ensenada, not far from a movie studio complex used to film "Titanic," and bus passengers to the U.S. But the cruise line decided they would be more comfortable on board, spokesman Vance Gulliksen said.
Zambrano said passengers were overjoyed to hear they were heading straight back to California and wouldn’t have to go through the tedious customs process at the border.
"When they said they were towing us to San Diego instead of Ensenada, the cheer could be heard all the way around the boat," he said. "Everybody was screaming and then every time the rescues boat shows up, people run to the side and they cheer and they wave and they take pictures."
The ship was 200 miles south of San Diego and about 44 miles off shore when the engine room fire killed its power.
No one was hurt, but those on board were left without air conditioning, hot water or Internet service. Most telephone service also was out.
The ship’s auxiliary power allowed for working toilets and cold water, Gulliksen said.
The U.S. Navy resupplied the ship on Tuesday with thousands of pounds of food and other supplies ferried by helicopter from the USS Ronald Reagan, an aircraft carrier diverted from maneuvers nearby.
Passengers were being entertained with acoustic music, board games, dancing, trivia contests and even a scavenger hunt for children, Gulliksen said.
"Overall, generally, the mood on the ship is good," he said. "The passengers have been very understanding."
Carnival spokeswoman Joyce Oliva said the ship’s command is able to communicate with outsiders on a backup system.
The situation will be costly for Miami-based Carnival Corp., which is refunding passengers, offering vouchers for future cruises and may have to dry dock the ship if the damage is extensive.
"We know this has been an extremely trying situation for our guests and we sincerely thank them for their patience," Carnival President and CEO Gerry Cahill said in a statement.
The last major cruise accident was in 2007 when a ship with more than 1,500 people sank after hitting rocks near the Aegean island of Santorini, Mathisen said. Two French tourists died.
In May, a machine room fire in a cruise ship off the coast of Norway forced off the 607 people on board.
Associated Press writers Elliot Spagat in San Diego and photographer Greg Bull aboard the USS Ronald Reagan contributed to this report.