Sedalia Family Details Cruise Ship Ordeal

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SEDALIA - Sedalia mother Stephanie Kolasky and her two-year-old daughter Hannah had no idea they were setting sail on a ‘porta-potty' cruise ship to celebrate a family wedding. The family chose the Carnival Triumph because it was affordable and convenient. Of their wedding group of 23, many live in San Antonio, Texas--about a four-hour drive to the Triumph's port of departure in Galveston.

Kolasky said the engine room fire that crippled the cruise ship on Sunday, February 10 didn't interfere with the wedding. "The wedding actually happened on Friday and it was beautiful," said Kolasky. "They ended up getting everything paid for complimentary because of the fire on the ship. So it worked out in their favor, definitely."

The ship made it to its only destination stop in Cozumel, Mexico on February 9 without any sign of trouble. "But with Hannah, we were only able to stay off the ship for about four hours because it was hot--really, really hot," said Kolasky. "We just needed to keep her in a happy mood. So in eight days, we were off the ship for four hours."

Kolasky went to sleep Saturday night after admiring a beautiful sunset on board. She thought she would wake up and enjoy a final day of relaxation at sea on Sunday, but the morning had other events in store. "We woke up to an alarm over the PA system Sunday morning of ‘Alpha Team! Alpha Team!'--which at that point we didn't know what the ‘Alpha Team' was, but it turned out that it was their fire response team."

A series of announcements echoed through the PA system, but left passengers clueless as to what was going on. Kolasky could see smoke out her balcony window and smelled a burning electrical smell in the hallway. "Probably about an hour and a half later they finally came over the PA system to let us know that there had been a fire. And at that point, everybody just kind of wondered what is going to happen and what is going on."

Lights began to flicker throughout the ship and Kolasky knew trouble was ahead. "After that all power went off and the electricity never came back on." A lack of power was the least of their problems. When the boat leaned to one side or the other, sewage water emerged from the drains and piping in the bathroom. "There weren't enough people to clean up everybody's room all at the same time, so you really kind of had to pitch in to help. If you didn't clean it up right then, then it would overflow into your room. It was gross."

Many passengers migrated to the upper decks to escape smells and overflows of sewage, but Kolasky was able to stay in her room. "We had a balcony room and that was a godsend because we had access to fresh air constantly." The tent city built of sheets impressed Kolasky. "It was pretty incredible to go up and see how people had MacGyvered these tents all over the decks. It was really incredible to see that. But I felt so bad for those people because you knew those were the people that were on the lower decks that had no fresh air at all and couldn't stay in their rooms. I couldn't imagine having a child and having to stay up on those decks. That would have been awful."

Stephanie and Hannah slept in their room every single night. "The first couple of nights were really, really hot," said Kolasky. "But we were able to leave the doors open and get a really good breeze, which also helped with the smell tremendously. But the last night, Wednesday night, it was pretty chilly, so we had to keep the doors closed. And then you have the problem of the smell building up, and with a two-year-old, we were really worried about her getting sick so we kind of left the doors open as long as we could before it got too chilly."

Besides horrible smells wreaking havoc on nostrils throughout the ship, passengers also dealt with unappealing food. "There was always food. There was never a shortage of food," said Kolasky. But according to her, it wasn't the most appetizing food. "I think the most unappetizing thing that we came across was yogurt that they gave everybody that didn't need to be refrigerated. They promised us that it was okay, but I don't think there was any way that any of us were going to eat that."

Kolasky and her daughter ate a lot of boxed dry cereal, which was in high demand. Kolasky said people hoarded food in the morning by taking 10 to 12 boxes of cereal, but crew members monitored food distribution during lunch and dinner. "Every once in a while we would get burgers or hot dogs when one of the other ships would come by, but the wait to get one of those was three to four hours."

Kolasky said taking care of her two-year old daughter was a welcomed distraction because keeping her entertained was a full-time job. "Instead of dwelling on this dire situation we were in, she kind of kept everybody busy with us trying to entertain her," said Kolasky. "So really, I think she helped us get through it with more of a positive manner than some of the people on board the ship."

Despite the circumstances, Kolasky described the atmosphere on board as amiable. Other passengers and crew members jumped to help carry Hannah's stroller up and down flights of stairs. "There was always ample help for everybody that needed it," said Kolasky. She never felt unsafe on the ship either. "Really it was amazing that the honor system kicked in immediately. We left our cabin doors open almost constantly so that everybody across the hall in the interior rooms that didn't have fresh air could have airflow all day long."

Kolasky said the crew was amazing and always willing to help. However, her one complaint was a lack of communication. "I really would have expected that we would have gotten more information than the general public back home would get, but we got nothing additional." She said the first day was the most frustrating. "They would come on every hour or so and tell us, ‘Well, we still don't have any news. We can't get into the (engine) room to let you know when we're going to be able to start moving again and if we're going to be able to start moving again.' And then once they finally did, then they said, ‘Ok, now we'll call for help.' So we had a wait time of over 24 hours before help actually arrived to start towing us back to shore. I think the ill communication for that purpose was really frustrating for all the passengers."

With communication scarce at first, rumors surfaced among passengers. "I think the worst one was that the reason the Coast Guard was following us and assisting us was to protect us from Mexican drug lords coming on board and robbing us, which was obviously certainly not going to happen."

Communicating with family members back home was also difficult. Kolasky could only pick up signal for her cell phone when other cruise ships came by to drop off food. She managed to make a call to her worried father, James Van Horn, on Monday. "It went from Monday knowing that she was okay and that things weren't too bad to then hearing the news reports throughout the week of how things were deteriorating," said Van Horn. "Really, what was a short few days seemed like months. That week just seemed to go on forever."

After four long days aboard the crippled ship as tug boats slowly towed it to Mobile, Alabama, the 3,141 passengers finally disembarked the ship the evening of February 14. Carnival paid for travel arrangements home for all passengers. Kolasky and her daughter arrived at the Kansas City International Airport Friday afternoon. "Seeing them come off the jet way and come through the gate area was just incredible," said Van Horn.

In a news release, Carnival stated that all guests of the February 7 Carnival Triumph voyage will receive a full refund of the cruise and transportation expenses, a future cruise credit equal to the amount for the voyage, reimbursement of all shipboard purchases made during the voyage, with the exception of casino, gift shop and artwork purchases, and compensation of $500 per person.

Carnival president and CEO Gerry Cahill stated, "I want to again apologize to our guests and their friends and families. The situation on board was difficult and we are very sorry for what happened. We pride ourselves on providing our guests with a great vacation experience and clearly we failed in that case."

Carnival canceled 14 voyages of the Carnival Triumph through April 13, 2013. Guests on the voyages will receive a full refund of their cruise fare, non-refundable transportation costs, pre-paid shore excursions, gratuities and government fees and taxes.

"As far as being taken care of and compensated through Carnival, I think that they've been more than fair," said Kolasky. "They've taken really good care of us." Kolasky said she will probably use Carnival's free cruise offer, but that cruise will be her last with Carnival.