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Carnival Splendor fire: Crippled ship nears San Diego

Carnival Splendor, without propulsion or primary electricity since an engine fire Monday morning, is being dragged towards San Diego bay by six tug boats.

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In this image taken from video, tug boats pull the disabled cruise ship Carnival Splendor toward the U.S. on Nov. 10. The boat is expected to dock in San Diego by midday Thursday.

APTN / AP

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Six tug boats pulled a stricken cruise ship to San Diego Bay early Thursday, bringing the nearly 4,500 passengers and crew closer to freedom after four days of limited food, smelly toilets and dark cabins.

The nearly 1,000-foot Carnival Splendor was about eight miles off the harbor mouth Thursday morning, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Rachel Polish. Two tugs hauled it slowly up from the Mexican coast, and four more were hooking up to help gently steer it to the dock.

The rigging is expected to take about an hour and the ship will need another two hours to reach dock.

Coast Guard cutters will escort the ship around the tip of the Coronado Peninsula to San Diego's downtown harbor.

"It will take a lot of effort to get a 952-foot safe and secure," Polish said, adding that weather conditions for the operation were favorable.

It is expected to take several hours for everyone to get off the ship.

"Every day is getting more frustrating for some people. You can tell some people are just angry," passenger Kate Kapelka told CBS's "Early Show" on Thursday morning.

Just about anything that requires electrical power was knocked out by a Monday morning fire in an engine room. There was 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.

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Lines for cold food stretch for hours. Navy helicopters flew in Spam, Pop Tarts and canned crab meat and other goods for the passengers and crew, passengers said.

"We're eating spoiled turkey sandwiches and warm milk and warm yogurt," passenger Joey Noriega told ABC's "Good Morning America" on Thursday. "Everything smells like it's spoiled... Nothing's cooked. It's all sandwich meat. It's disgusting. You're afraid to eat it 'cause it's been left out and touched by everybody else on the ship."

The bathrooms are dark and toilets no longer flush, passenger Valerie Ojeda told "Good Morning America."

"It was bad, but now that I think back to it, it was really bad," she said

Still, she said people were trying to make the best of the trip, dancing, laughing and singing along to "Sweet Caroline." The bar was open and offering free drinks, and there were musical bands and children's games.

Intermittent cell phone service returned Wednesday, and Carnival made eight satellite phones available for passengers to make quick calls home.

Cruise Director John Heald said in comments posted in a blog on Carnival Lines website that the people aboard "have risen to the obvious challenges and difficult conditions onboard."

"Obviously it has been a challenge but let me tell you the most important facts and those are that the ship is safe, the guests are safe and that nobody was injured," he said.

Seth Grabel, 28, a Las Vegas magician, waited for his parents, who were on the cruise with hundreds of magicians participating in a convention put on by David Sandy Productions of St. Joseph, Mo.

"My dad is an amateur magician, but my mom hates magic. She was fighting this tooth and nail. She did not want to go on this thing. She had an intuition. I don't think my dad's going to live down this one," Grabel 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 fire killed its power.

Gerry Cahill, chief executive of Carnival Corp.'s Carnival Cruise Lines, 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.

"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."

Gina Calzada, 43, of Henderson, Nev., said her diabetic sister, Vicky Alvarez, called her Wednesday 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.

"She said it stinks of rotten food and smoke," Calzada said. "It's dark, and it's cold.'"

Alvarez's husband said that when he went looking for food for his wife, a crew member told him to give her a Tic-Tac.

Carnival officials said they could not confirm Alvarez's report.

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 further to San Diego, sparing passengers the 50-mile bus ride to the border. San Diego also offers more transportation and hotel options.

"The conditions on the ship have been challenging and we are very, very sorry for the discomfort and the inconvenience that our guests have had to deal with in the past several days," Cahill said. "They signed up for a great cruise vacation and obviously that is not what they received."

In his comments Heald defended the ship and crew.

There will be those who will say this has been "'the cruise from hell,'" he wrote. But he continued that there are "many more who will tell you what they have been telling me and the crew and that is that Carnival as a company have done everything they can and continue to do so."

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Associated Press writers Julie Watson in San Diego and Raquel Maria Dillon in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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