MOBILE, Ala. -- The last passengers left the crippled Carnival Triumph cruise ship early Friday, ending a five-day ordeal aboard a vessel described as a "nightmare" of filth.
About 3,100 weary passengers lined up and filed off of the ship after it docked in Mobile, Ala., at around 10:30 p.m. ET. They had suffered for days without sufficient food, power or working bathrooms.
Some aboard chanted, "Let me off, let me off!" Homemade signs on the ship included "Sweet Home Alabama!" and "The ship's afloat, so is the sewage."
Teams were in place to receive the passengers with warm food, blankets, cellphones, and refreshments, said Terry Thornton, senior vice president of Carnival Cruise Lines. Some 100 buses took passengers to Galveston, Texas, or hotels in the area.
At 1:49 a.m. ET, Carnival tweeted: "All guests have now disembarked the Carnival Triumph."
Texas native Brittany Ferguson, 24, said she was "feeling awesome just to see land and buildings."
"The scariest part was just not knowing when we'd get back," she told The Associated Press.
As the ship docked, Carnival Cruise Lines CEO Gerry Cahill spoke to the media — with some passengers cheering in the background — and apologized for the ordeal.
"I appreciate the patience of our guests and their ability to cope with the situation. And I'd like to reiterate the apology I made earlier. I know the conditions on board were very poor," he said. "We pride ourselves on providing our guests with a great vacation experience, and clearly we failed in this particular case."
He also thanked the U.S. Coast Guard and the city of Mobile for their help.
Passenger Janie Baker told MSNBC's Ed Schultz that people managed the situation well and that the crew was "fantastic," but on the final night, "people's tempers started flying." She described one incident where another passenger tried to disrupt a movie, and was taken away by the crew. "If we had gone any longer, it could have been much, much worse," she said.
Kendall Jenkins also had praise for the crew. "The crew was awesome, they were always smiling," she told NBC's Mark Potter just after disembarking.
Helicopter footage earlier Thursday showed the ship in the open Gulf of Mexico with passengers holding giant signs reading “SOS” and “Help! Get us to Eunice, LA.”
In a news conference Thursday night, Thornton said crew members would have the option of staying on the ship or moving to a hotel.
Earlier in the day, with the vessel in sight from shore, a cable snapped between the Triumph and one of the four tugboats dragging it to land, forcing yet another delay in the rescue.
'It smells like the zoo'
A fire in the engine room Sunday disabled the ship about 150 miles off the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. The flames were put out without any injuries, but passengers have described the conditions since as sweltering, unsanitary and becoming dangerous.
“It smells like the zoo ... it’s horrible,” passenger Shannon Caceres told NBC News in a telephone interview on Thursday afternoon as the ship approached land. After the power went out and toilets stopped working, the cruise staff instructed passengers to urinate into the showers and put fecal matter into plastic bags, which were regularly collected by room stewards and put into a giant trash bag, Caceres said.
She confirmed reports of passengers being fed onion-and-cucumber sandwiches, but said she has not touched anything the crew has prepared with their hands, choosing instead to subsist on potato chips and pretzels purchased from the gift shop. Many people on board have been getting upset stomachs, she said.
Caceres, who lives in Flower Mound, Texas, booked the cruise with three of her co-workers as part of an employee vacation. She described a ship that was descending into chaos, with reports of people looting rooms and taking laptops, phones and cameras.
'People were acting like idiots'
There were also frightening moments when the cruise staff began serving alcohol to passengers at one point during the ordeal.
“There were people screaming obscenities in the hallways, wasted,” Caceres recalled. “People were acting like idiots. You have children sleeping out on the lido deck with drunk people running around, that’s not OK.”
Caceres, who was on Deck 8 in a room with a balcony, at first kept the door of her cabin open to allow a breeze to come in so that passengers with interior rooms across the hall would be more comfortable. But as reports of looting spread, she kept her door closed.
Still, she was most scared at the beginning, when the fire broke out, alarms began going off and people stood terrified in the hallways with their life jackets on.
'I thought we were going to die.'
“I thought we were going to die,” Caceres said. “I have never been that scared in my whole life.”
Other passengers described a similar ordeal.
“Pipes are busting, I know the sewer is backing up, and water is in the cabins, and it’s just a nightmare,” Jamie Baker told TODAY on Thursday in a telephone interview from aboard the ship.
Baker said she and her friends slept with life vests one night because the ship was listing and they feared that it would capsize. Baker also said she saw one woman pass out.
Carnival disputed passenger accounts and said that crews had done the best they could. However, the company confirmed that fewer than two dozen public toilets were working.
The disabled ship was initially going to be towed to the Mexican port of Progreso, but strong winds pushed it 90 miles north, and Carnival decided to tow the ship to Mobile instead.
Late Thursday, passenger Chase Maclaskey told NBC News that U.S. Customs officers came on board around 11 a.m. and processed passengers quickly.
“Conditions have improved greatly since yesterday and previous days,” he said. “There have been bands performing to try and lift the mood. I have to stress, the staff, all of those who directly interface with guests, have gone above and beyond to try and lighten the burden while sleeping right alongside guests in lounges and on decks."
Passengers will get $500, reimbursement for the cruise and a credit for a future cruise, Carnival announced earlier this week.
The Triumph had 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew on board.
NBC News' Joe Myxter and The Associated Press contributed to this report.