In this image taken from video, tugboats pull the disabled cruise ship Carnival Splendor toward San Diego.
Crowds cheered as passengers began to disembark from a stricken cruise ship Thursday in San Diego after three days of limited food, smelly toilets and dark cabins.
Towed by tugboats and escorted by Coast Guard cutters, the nearly 1,000-foot Carnival Splendor reached the dock at about 8:30 a.m. PST. The first group of passengers walked down a ramp about an hour later, dragging rolling suitcases behind them and entering a tent on the dock. With the ship's elevators out of order, port officials estimated it would take about four hours for everyone to leave the ship.
Jae C. Hong/AP
Jeanne Ralston, facing camera, gets a hug from her daughter Cindi Wolfe after disembarking.
People on the decks and about 100 onshore cheered loudly as the ship reached the dock, while all along the harbor, tourists, joggers and fishermen stopped to snap photos.
High up on a ship railing, someone had stuck a sign thanking the Coast Guard and a hand-drawn U.S. flag.
"We're so happy to be getting off. Everybody's been cheering and clapping," passenger Fahizah Alim, 26, of Sacramento, said by cell phone.
"It's been like a nightmare," she said. "There's been no food, no power, no electricity, no flushing toilets. I spent the night tossing and turning in my cabin in the dark."
Seventy-five buses were arriving to drive passengers north to Long Beach, where the Splendor is based. Passengers also were given the option of staying overnight at San Diego hotels.
Ken King was one of the relieved passengers who streamed off the Splendor. He told CNN in the beginning, everything was ship-shape—until they were told there was an issue with the engines.
"Then the food actually got worse, the toilets didn't work for about 12 hours," he said. "It was hit or miss with the water, to get washed up."
King said he and his fellow passengers didn't learn there had been a fire on board until they were off the boat: "They never told us what the issue was, all they told us was there was smoke, lots of smoke."
The ship left Long Beach on Sunday for a seven-day trip to the Mexican Riviera, only to return days early without ever reaching the beaches vacationers had hoped for. A fire in the engine room knocked out power Monday morning, leaving the ship with no air conditioning, no hot food, no hot water, no casino. The swimming pool was off-limits because there was no way to pump chlorine.
Lines for cold food stretched for hours during the days after the power went out. Navy helicopters flew in Spam, Pop Tarts and canned crab meat and other goods for the passengers and crew, passengers said.
Some passengers carried food to others who used walkers and canes and couldn't climb up nine decks of stairs to reach the food lines, Alim said.
"We have not had a hot cup of coffee in four days," she said. "This was my first cruise and it was no luxury, no fun."
However, passengers spent their last night drinking free wine and beer at the bar and singing old songs.
Paul Patrick Sr., 50, of Riverside, said his daughter, Sabrina Klinge of Laguna Hills, was married on Saturday and was on her honeymoon cruise. The 27-year-old texted her father on Wednesday saying it was dark and she was living on Pop-Tarts.
"It was supposed to be this beautiful cruise and it turned into a nightmare," he said. "Nothing like it was advertised in the brochure."
As the ship approached San Diego, she sent him another text message: "We see land!"
In a follow-up cell phone call, Klinge told her father that she was hungry and did not want any salads or sandwiches when she arrived, he said.
"Steak and lobster?" he replied, jokingly. "You mean they don't have steak and lobster on the Splendor? I thought you liked Spam."
After the Splendor docked, Gerry Cahill, chief executive of Carnival Corp.'s Carnival Cruise Lines told passengers via ship's intercom: "I'm very sorry" and added: "I would like to thank you for all your patience and understanding that you showed throughout the situation."
Cahill earlier said the crankcase on one of six diesel generators "split," causing the fire. He said he doubted other ships in the Miami-based company's fleet were at risk.
The ship was 200 miles south of San Diego and about 44 miles off shore when the fire killed its power.
"We've never had anything like this happen before, so I really don't think we have any risks to other ships," he said at a news conference Wednesday. "This is a very unusual situation."
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 it would be better to go a little farther to San Diego, sparing passengers the 50-mile bus ride to the border. San Diego also offers more transportation and hotel options.
NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press