SAN DIEGO — The food on the disabled cruise ship Carnival Splendor is cold and the lines to get it stretch for hours.
And with the pool, bars and casinos closed and rooms pitch black and stuffy, the nearly 4,500 people and crew on board passed the time with live music, scavenger hunts and trivia contests as they are slowly towed to San Diego.
Two tugboats were pulling the 952-foot ship back to the U.S. The journey could take at least until late Thursday.
The ship entered cell phone range today, allowing passengers mostly cut off from communication since an engine fire disabled the vessel on Monday to finally reach loved ones — and provide the first details of the conditions on board.
Among them was David Zambrano, who phoned his employer, Denver TV station 9NEWS, and 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, he said. Navy helicopters flew in Spam, Pop Tarts and canned crab meat and other goods for the passengers and crew.
“It’s almost like a diet cruise because we’ve been eating salads and fruit and small sandwiches,” Zambrano said.
Gina Calzada, 43, of Henderson, Nev., said her diabetic sister, Vicky, called her this morning on her cell phone and started sobbing. She said she has not been able to take her insulin for her diabetes because she is not eating enough.
She told Calzada all that she had eaten was some bread, cucumbers and lettuce. “I told her where are the Pop Tarts and the Spam? I thought they brought in 70,000 pounds of supplies,” Calzada said. “She said I haven’t seen that.”
Alvarez and her husband saved up for months to take the cruise to celebrate their wedding anniversary of more than 20 years and her 48th birthday, which was on Nov. 4. They had not been able to take a vacation for years because Alvarez was caring for their aging mother, who died in June.
“She said it stinks of rotten food and smoke,” Calzada said. “‘It’s dark, and it’s cold.’”
Her sister then passed the phone to her husband because she was crying too hard, Calzada said. He told Calzada that when he went looking for food for his wife, a crew member told him to give her a Tic-Tac.
“That really made my brother-in-law upset,” Calzada said.
Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen said he did not have information about Alvarez to immediately comment. Passengers were being entertained with acoustic music, board games, dancing, trivia contests and even a scavenger hunt for children, he said.
The Splendor left Long Beach on Sunday for a seven-day trip to the Mexican Riviera. 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 had been knocked 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.
Today, 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 this 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, 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 each time a rescue boat arrived, he said, people ran to the side, cheered, waved and took pictures.