SAN DIEGO — Karen Blocker's dream cruise began disintegrating at dawn when her cabin started rattling "like an earthquake."
"I told my daughter: 'This boat is not moving anymore. We've got to get out,'" Blocker said.
She opened the door to find a hallway filled with smoke and crew members telling passengers to head for the lifeboats.
The boats turned out to be unnecessary, but the scare was just the start of a three-day ordeal for the 50-year-old Blocker and nearly 4,500 other passengers and crew aboard the stricken Carnival Splendor.
It wasn't until tugboats hauled the 952-foot cruise liner into a San Diego dock Thursday that weary passengers were able to tell their stories to the world.
Their ship lost power after an engine fire Monday and was adrift about 200 miles outside San Diego and 44 miles off the coast of Mexico.
At that distance from land, it was out of cell phone range for much of the ordeal. The fire left the ship without air conditioning, hot water or hot food. The casino was closed and, for a time, so were the bars. The swimming pool was off-limits because the pumps wouldn't work.
For Edward Warschauer, of Reno, Nev., the worst part of the incident was the backed-up toilets. He said he had to bail out the family's toilet in their cabin several times using a cup.
"Let's put it this way: For me, this was my worst nightmare, my phobia, to be on the sea in a ship and get stuck," Warschauer said.
Navy helicopters flew in Spam, Pop Tarts and canned crab meat and other goods.
Karyn and Ed van Latum, both 61, flew from Holland to take the cruise and spend time with their son. They booked the cruise with their daughter-in-law's parents after arriving from Alphen aan den Reijn, their hometown.
They were on the first bus to arrive in Long Beach after leaving San Diego and were head to West Covina with their in-laws before returning to Holland on Tuesday.
The van Latums had a first-floor interior cabin and when the fire began, the area filled with smoke and the lights went off, making their room pitch-black. They were afraid the situation was much worse.
"We had to go to the upper deck and we took our life jackets and some people were in pajamas or bathrobes," Ed van Latum said. "But the crew was very, very, very good."
After the initial danger passed, they said, they struggled with the darkness in their cabin, even in the daytime.
"Some people said it was like a coffin, it's so dark," Karyn van Latum said. "We left our front door open, so that we had some little light, but it looked like a coffin. We stayed on the deck."
Many passengers passed the time by staying on deck, looking up at the starry sky or out at the USS Ronald Reagan, the Navy aircraft carrier that was assisting in the delivery of supplies to the ship.
Others chatted in their dark, stuffy cabins. Others simply went to bed early. Very early.
Passengers on lower decks had to climb as many as nine flights of stairs to get to the cafeteria only to meet long lines that stretched on for hours. By the time those at the end got to the food, they were left with tomatoes and lettuce, Haslerud said.
Some passengers carried food to those who used walkers and canes and couldn't climb stairs to reach the food lines.
"We have not had a hot cup of coffee in four days," said passenger Fahizah Alim, 26, of Sacramento, who ate at night by flashlight. "This was my first cruise and it was no luxury, no fun."
On Thursday morning, people clutched those cold cups of coffee and cheered when the San Diego horizon came into view.
The National Transportation Safety Board said the probe into the fire's cause would be conducted by Panama. Panama agreed to let the U.S. Coast Guard join the investigation because most of the passengers were U.S. citizens and two NTSB experts would assist, the NTSB said.
The incident will be costly for Carnival, but it won't have to repay the Navy for delivering food from the carrier. The Reagan was nearby on a training mission, and responding to the ship was nothing more than a "minor distraction," said Chief Petty Officer Terry Feeney.
Passengers will get a refund, including airfare, and a free cruise. Those holding reservations on the next Splendor cruise, which was scheduled to depart Sunday but was canceled, will be offered full refunds and a 25 percent discount on a future cruise.
After arriving on terra firma, Blocker stood in the sun outside the cruise ship terminal waiting for her ride home and said, "I just want warm food. Mexican food."
Associated Press writer Gillian Flaccus in Long Beach contributed to this story.
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