By CHERIL VERNON
Known for having a positive attitude, Palestine resident Charla Higginbotham was still upbeat but exhausted Friday evening on her way home after exiting the crippled cruise ship Carnival Triumph late Thursday night in Mobile, Ala.
Higginbotham was one of at least seven people with ties to Palestine who were aboard the ship when an engine room fire knocked out the ship’s primary power source on Sunday.
“Bad things happen. I just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, but I will cruise again, but I’ll never forget this experience — I will never forget it,” Higginbotham said during a phone interview with the Herald-Press Friday as she and her husband, Robert, drove back from Galveston to Palestine.
On Facebook, Charla wrote to her friends: “I will never ever forget this week and am so very thankful God was with us. Boy, did He find a way to make me stop and realize the important things in life!”
Even though she hadn’t slept since Wednesday night on the ship’s mini golf course, her first plan when she arrived in Palestine was to see her oldest son Matthew in the hospital.
“We are going straight to the hospital to see Matt,” said Charla, who used her cell phone whenever she could get a signal to call her husband and check on her son.
“When a cruise ship came by to bring us supplies, we would stand by the rail holding out our phone to ping off the satellite and get a call out,” Charla recalled.
Matthew was being treated at Palestine Regional Medical Center when Charla left for the cruise.
“If I would have known what those four days were going to turn into, I might have done things differently, but it was only supposed to be a weekend trip,” Charla said.
The Trip Home
The Carnival Triumph docked in Mobile, Ala. late Thursday night, but that wasn’t the end of the journey for its passengers. Some took a seven-hour bus ride to Galveston and others opted to take a two-hour bus trip to New Orleans, La. to stay in a hotel and take an early morning flight back to Houston. Charla and her roommates, Cindy Singletary and Amy Wiginton, choose to stay in the hotel Thursday night.
“When the boat docked, my mother’s friend was in a wheelchair and I was pushing her, so I was about the 10th person off the boat,” Charla said. “But we could see land for a long time it seemed before they let us off the boat.”
Upon arriving at the hotel around 3 a.m., Charla was interviewed by a CNN reporter.
“From there in New Orleans, we were able to get hot showers and a hot meal, but we didn’t even pull back the covers on the bed because we had to be back downstairs at 6:30 a.m. (Friday) to go to the airport. That was my first shower since Saturday night,” Charla said.
Carnival chartered a special plane to take the passengers to Houston.
Robert Higginbotham and Kenneth Singletary met their wives at the Houston airport. The Higginbothams then had to go retrieve Charla’s car in Galveston.
On the Ship
The scariest moment for Charla — and probably most of the Triumph passengers — was on Sunday morning right after the fire that disabled the ship.
“We were sleeping and it was about 5 o’clock in the morning when they came on the speaker and said there was a small fire but it was under control and they were assessing the situation,” Charla recalled. “We were sitting up with the lights on after hearing that — when 30 minutes later our lights went off. There was no generator at this point, it was probably two hours before they had the generators hooked up.”
It was during that time of confusion when things got scary for Charla. The crew told the passengers to stay in their rooms — that there was no need to be on deck.
“They told us to go back to our rooms and take a life jacket. There’s no need to be outside,” Charla said.
At this point, the ship was already tilting, due to the power knocking out the ship’s stabilizer.
“They told us it wasn’t bad that we never lifted more than 5 percent. But if you went down to the bottom decks 1 and 2, it felt like you were walking sideways,” Charla said.
As most passengers reported to the media, the conditions on the ship continued to deteriorate.
“There was no running water or flushing toilets. Sewer was on the floor, but not everywhere. In our cabin, it was in our toilet and came out of the drain in the shower depending on how the boat lifted, but the crew would clean it up the best they could,” Charla said. “The crew on the boat was very good to us, very nice. They did try to keep the boat clean. You can do only so much without water and electricity.”
Charla said reports of cabins flooding with sewer were due to some passengers attempting to take cold showers when at one point water was available. If the boat was tilting the opposite direction of the shower drain, the shower water would flood into the bathroom and cabin.
Passengers were told to urinate in the shower and to defecate in red plastic bags, Charla said.
Having an interior cabin on deck 12, there was no light and no fresh air and sewer smell coming from the bathroom.
“My mom had a room with a balcony and she was able to have some fresh air and light due to that, but with us being in an interior room, you couldn’t stay in your room,” Charla said.
For Charla, the worst part was the lack of food and the food choices.
“I’m diabetic, so it made it hard because I had to eat things that would raise my blood sugar,” she said. “There were times I stood in line for 3 1/2 hours to get food. The last day, they were feeding passengers lobster and steak, but after standing in a line, they ran out. Some people did get good food, but not everybody.”
The food shortage did make the passengers antsy.
“People were hoarding food — it was horrible,” Charla said. “But I did the same thing, because you didn’t know when you were going to get your next meal. But when I grabbed a couple boxes of cereal, I shared them with the people in my room. We all took care of each other and shared what we had.”
Charla also stood in line to get food for not only her group but for her mother and relatives on Deck 6 because the food was on Deck 9.
“Because there wasn’t any electricity, the elevators didn’t work and some of my mom’s group couldn’t go up and down the stairs, so I would get the food,” Charla said. “I went up and down those stairs so many times. Usually, you gain weight on a cruise, but I bet I lost 2 to 3 pounds.”
Charla and her group slept on Deck 12 most nights by the ping pong table.
“We slept in our chairs and used sheets and blankets from our rooms,” Charla said. “Tuesday night got a little cold. On Wednesday night, it rained so we moved inside to where there’s a walkway between the deck and the mini golf course. There was about 20 of us all together. We slept on the floor with our pillows because our blankets got wet.”
Charla described the experience similar to camping out. And while they didn’t sleep well, they still made the best of the situation.
For Singletary, the experience wasn’t quite as good due to health issues. She was sunburned and then had an allergic reaction to motion sickness medicine given to her on the ship toward the end of the trip.
This was Charla’s second cruise.
“I loved the first cruise, it was wonderful. This one started out wonderful too. We had a really good time in Cozumel and made some great memories,” Charla said. “But even after everything went bad, we made the best of it.
“On Deck 12, there was 20 of us all together. I met wonderful people. We took care of each other. We decided several of us may get together and take our next cruise together. I’ve already friended many of them on Facebook.”
Back to Normal
After she gets caught up on her sleep, Charla said she can’t wait to return to her normal schedule. She had already missed days of work at Northside Primary’s library due to her son’s illness and then lost more days due to the ship’s mechanical issues.
“I miss my students at school and I’m sure they miss me. I miss my husband and children. I miss my normal routine,” she said.
An avid scrapbooker, Charla took hundreds of pictures while on board the ship and plans to work on her cruise scrapbook soon.
“When you scrapbook, you take lots of pictures. So I took pictures of the red bathroom bags and the sewer on the floor in the dining hall because it’s a story that you tell,” Charla said.
But overall, the experience could have been worse.
“They could have told us on Sunday to get into our life jackets and get into the lifeboats,” Charla said. “That’s definitely something that puts your life in perspective and makes you think about certain things — because it could have been a lot worse.”
On Facebook, Charla wrote to her friends Friday: “The workers on the ship were phenomenal. They worked very hard to keep up with everything the best they could under the circumstances. We are blessed. Everyone in our group was unharmed. Scared yes, but safe for the most part. We had each other... proud, smart, strong women. We were ready for anything that lurked around the corner. We took care of each other during what was probably the worst experience of our lives. We cried for our loved ones, cried for the situation. We held each other and comforted each other. We laughed and found ways to make the time go by faster. Had the strangest conversations about stuff we never would have before.... We bonded in a way we never could imagine. I am so very happy to be back home with my family.....”
Others from Palestine
Others with Palestine connections on board the Triumph were: Cindy Singletary, Amy Wiginton, Teddy Bishop, Carolyn Boley Cox (formerly of Palestine) and Loyce and Bing Barnett of Elkhart, who reportedly were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary on the cruise.