Carnival Cruise Lines' boss said today he would go aboard and apologise personally to passengers for foul and dangerous conditions while the stricken liner Triumph was adrift for five nightmarish days.
Chief executive Gerry Cahill spoke as the Triumph limped into Mobile, Alabama, and said he appreciated the patience of the 3,000 passengers on board. Meanwhile he apologised on the public address system.
He said Carnival prided itself on providing people with a great holiday ''and clearly we failed in this particular case''.
Distraught passengers told stories of overflowing toilets, food shortages, foul odours and dangerously dark passageways while the Triumph was disabled in the Gulf of Mexico.
Passengers cheered raucously on the 14-storey ship, lining the deck rails as the first passengers began disembarking. As they did, others waiting were chanting: ''Let me off, let me off!''
Some danced on one of the balconies. ''Happy V-Day'' read a home-made sign made for the Valentine's Day arrival and another, more starkly: ''The ship's afloat, so is the sewage.''
It took six gruelling hours navigating the 30-mile ship channel to dock, guided by at least four tugboats. At nearly 900ft in length, Triumph was the largest cruise ship ever to dock at Mobile.
But the passsengers' ordeal is not yet over - even once the ship is stable, it will take four to five hours for all the passengers to disembark, said Carnival senior vice president of marketing Terry Thornton.
In texts and flitting mobile phone calls, passengers described miserable conditions while at sea, many anxious to walk on solid ground. But for now, they waved towels at the throng at dockside and even motorists who stopped on the hard shoulder of major Interstate 10 near the port to watch the ship come in.
Passengers have the option of a seven-hour bus ride to the Texas cities of Galveston or Houston or a two-hour trip to New Orleans. Some also can stay in Mobile.
Galveston is the home port of the ill-fated ship, which lost power in an engine-room fire on Sunday about 150 miles off Mexico's Yucatan peninsula.
Dozens of chartered buses - with markings from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas - had gathered in Mobile. Carnival said 100 buses had been reserved and it would cover transportation costs.
Earlier the more than 4,200 passengers and crew members suffered another setback with towline issues that brought the vessel to a stop for about an hour, just when it was getting close to port.
As the vessel drew within phone range, passengers vented their anger.
Renee Shanar, of Houston, was on board with her husband, who she said had heart trouble. They were told they would be among the first to disembark, but she said: ''I don't believe them, they've been lying to us from the beginning.''
Disgusted by the foul air and heat on the lower decks, many passengers hauled mattresses and bed sheets on to the top deck and slept there, even staying put in the rain. As the ship approached the coast, Carnival workers removed the bedding and took it downstairs.
''Today they cleaned the ship, they're serving better food, covering up basically, but at least they're making it more bearable,'' said Kalin Hill, of Houston, who boarded the Triumph as part of a hen party.
In a text message she had described deplorable conditions over the past few days.
''The lower floors had it the worst, the floors 'squish' when you walk and lots of the lower rooms have flooding from above floors,'' she wrote.
''Half the bachelorette party was on two; the smell down there literally chokes you and hurts your eyes.''
She said ''there's poop and urine all along the floor. The floor is flooded with sewer water ... and we had to poop in bags.''
The company, which employs hundreds of staf in Southampton and also owns P&O and Cunard cruise companies, disputed the accounts of passengers who described the ship as filthy, saying employees were doing everything to ensure people were comfortable.
Some travel agents said cruise prices and bookings had not been affected by the disabled Carnival ship, but others in the industry say it is too early to tell.
Thelbert Lanier was waiting at the Mobile port for his wife, who texted him yesterday.
''Room smells like an outhouse. Cold water only, toilets haven't work in 3 1/2 days. Happy Valentines Day!!! I love u & wish I was there,'' she said in the message.
''It's 4:00 am. Can't sleep...it's cold & I'm starting to get sick.''
No-one was injured in the fire aboard, but a passenger with a pre-existing medical condition was taken off the ship as a precaution. In addition, the US Coast Guard said it evacuated a passenger who reportedly suffered a stroke yesterday.
Carnival said the original plan was to tow the ship to Progreso, Mexico, because it was the closest port, but by the time tugboats arrived, the ship had drifted about 90 miles north due to strong currents, putting it nearly equidistant to Mobile.
Carnival Cruise Lines has cancelled a dozen more planned voyages aboard the Triumph and acknowledged the crippled ship had been plagued by other mechanical problems in the weeks before the engine-room blaze.
The National Transportation Safety Board has opened an investigation.
Passengers were supposed to get a full refund and discounts on future cruises and Carnival said this week Wednesday they would each get an additional £320 in compensation.