KPBS reporter Nicole Corpuz contributed to the information in this report.
Originally published November 9, 2010 at 8:15 a.m., updated November 9, 2010 at 4:22 p.m.
Navy helicopters shuttled in supplies Tuesday to 4,500 passengers and crew members expected to remain stranded on a disabled cruise ship off the coast of Mexico at least through Wednesday night.
Mexican seagoing tugboats were expected to reach the Carnival Splendor on Tuesday afternoon to begin the slow process of towing it 150 miles to the nearest Mexican port at Ensenada. Passengers will be bused back to California from there.
The ship, which left from Long Beach on Sunday, was 200 miles south of San Diego when an engine room fire cut its power early Monday, according to a statement from Miami-based Carnival Cruise Lines. It began drifting off the coast of northern Baja California.
Monty Mathisen, of the New York-based publication Cruise Industry News, called the fire a freak accident.
"This stuff does not happen, I mean once in a blue moon," he said.
Mathisen said the last major cruise accident was when a ship with more than 1,500 people sank after hitting rocks near the Aegean island of Santorini. Two French tourists died.
None of the 3,299 passengers and 1,167 crew members aboard the Splendor were hurt and the fire was put out in the generator's compartment, but the 952-foot Mexican Riviera-bound ship had no hot water or telephone service. Cell phone and Internet service were knocked out because of the loss of power, preventing families from communicating with their loved ones.
The temperature in the area was 62 degrees and there were scattered clouds, according to the Coast Guard.
Toni Sweet, of San Pedro, Calif., was frustrated Tuesday after relentlessly calling the cell phone of her cousin on board and getting no answer.
"We know everything is fine, but we're just worried," Sweet said. "She was nervous about going on a cruise ship even before this happened and now with this, I don't think she'll ever go again."
Carnival spokeswoman Joyce Oliva said the ship's command has been able to communicate with outsiders on a backup system.
After the fire, passengers were first asked to move from their cabins to the ship's upper deck, but eventually allowed to go back to their rooms.
Bottled water and cold food were provided, and the ship's auxiliary power allowed for toilets and cold running water.
On Tuesday, U.S. sailors loaded cargo planes with boxes of crab meat, croissants and other items for the stranded passengers. They were to be ferried to an aircraft carrier at sea, where helicopters will pick them up and drop them on the ship.
Navy Commander Greg Hicks said relief efforts were running smoothly. "Presently we are unloading and delivering those food and supplies via aircraft. Those tow units are on scene. They should be beginning to tow the ship to Ensenada shortly."
The tugboats were expected to arrive back at the port with the ship around 8 p.m. PST Wednesday, Coast Guard Petty Officer Kevin Metcalf said. Metcalf said the tugs, which will be escorted by a Coast Guard cutter, must move slowly because the ship is so big.
From Ensenada, passengers will be driven 50 miles by bus to the California border, said Oliva, who added that she was unaware of any safety concerns from passengers or their families about traveling by land in Mexico.
A woman who answered the phone at Grupo Boluda, which owns the tugboats hired to tow the ship to port, said the company could provide no information and referred questions to the port captain.
Ensenada Port Capt. Carlos Carrillo said some bus companies that normally work with cruise ships docked in Ensenada already take passengers to the border.
"I don't think it will be much trouble to get the passengers to the border," he said.
Carnival Corp.'s stock was down about 1 percent Tuesday.
Mathisen commended the cruise line for its handling of the situation, saying officials responded quickly and were providing information.
But he said the accident deals another blow to the industry, which already has been hurting from a drop in trips to Mexico because of the country's drug violence.
It also will be costly for Carnival, which is refunding passengers, offering vouchers for future cruises and may have to dry dock the ship if the damage is extensive.
Once passengers are dropped off, the Splendor will be towed back to Long Beach, Calif., a journey that will take days. That's why the passengers will be dropped off in Mexico first.
"We know this has been an extremely trying situation for our guests and we sincerely thank them for their patience," Carnival President and CEO Gerry Cahill said in the statement. "Conditions on board the ship are very challenging and we sincerely apologize for the discomfort and inconvenience our guests are currently enduring."
People with reservations for future cruises on the ship, like Julie Scrivener of San Diego, closely watched developments.
The 35-year-old wedding planner and her wedding DJ husband turned down business in favor of a cruise on the Carnival Splendor scheduled to leave Nov. 21.
"I'm trying to be optimistic but I'm not sure if the ship is going to be fixed in time," Scrivener said. "I'm a little disappointed but we'll see."