SAN DIEGO | A disabled cruise liner inched into San Diego Bay on Thursday after three nightmarish days adrift on the Pacific, sparking cheers from passengers who disembarked and described limited food, backed-up toilets and dark cabins.
The evacuation of 4,500 passengers and crew was slowed by disabled elevators, out of order like much of the ship after an engine room fire on Monday cut short the seven-day cruise and left the ship adrift in the Pacific off Mexico.
Pulled by six tugboats and escorted by Coast Guard cutters, the nearly 1,000-foot Carnival Splendor reached the dock about 8:30 a.m. PST, unable to steer or propel itself.
The first group of passengers walked down a ramp about an hour later, dragging suitcases behind them and entering a tent on the dock. By midday, about 2,500 had disembarked, which a Carnival official said was better than expected.
"I love being back on land," said passenger Ken King of Los Angeles, who turned 42 on Thursday.
Mr. King said he and his traveling companion were celebrating their birthdays on the cruise, so Carnival chose them to be in the first group off the ship.
"The staff was excellent. Only a few people on board were rude. The food was horrible. Starting at 5 a.m. on Monday, we didn't have toilets for 13 hours," Mr. King said.
Peg Fisher of Las Vegas, on her first cruise with husband Tom, said she was one of the first to try the toilets after many hours and prayed as she flushed.
"I ran out in the halls, 'The toilets flush!' People were like, 'Are you kidding?' They went running into their cabins," she said.
The Fishers described impromptu food fare that included cheese-and-beet sandwiches and other sandwiches filled with something that looked like corned-beef hash.
"If you could see the things they put on sandwiches, seriously, this could be the only cruise ever where people lost weight instead of gaining weight," Mrs. Fisher said.
People on the decks and about 100 onshore cheered loudly as the ship reached the dock, while all along the harbor, tourists, joggers and fishermen stopped to snap photos.
Lissa Letts of Overland, Kan., said she drove to San Diego to meet the returning ship to sell passengers T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase: "I survived the 2010 Carnival cruise Spamcation." Passengers snapped up the shirts at $20 apiece.
High up on a ship railing, someone had stuck a sign thanking the Coast Guard and a hand-drawn U.S. flag.
The ship left Long Beach, Calif., on Sunday for a seven-day trip to the Mexican Riviera, only to return days early without reaching the beaches vacationers had sought. A fire in the engine room knocked out power Monday morning, leaving passengers with no air conditioning, no hot food, no hot water, no casino. The swimming pool was off-limits because there was no way to pump chlorine.
Amy Watts, 25, of Seattle, said she smelled smoke when the fire broke out but the captain immediately announced that there would be no need to abandon ship. "You think about the Titanic … but we were all right," she said.
Seventy-five buses were arriving in San Diego to drive passengers north to Long Beach, where the Splendor is based. Passengers also were given the option of staying overnight at San Diego hotels.
Aboard the ship, lines for cold food stretched for hours during the days after the power went out. Navy helicopters flew in Spam, Pop Tarts and canned crabmeat and other goods for the passengers and crew, passengers said.
The National Transportation Safety Board announced Thursday that it had begun an investigation.
After the Splendor docked, Gerry Cahill, chief executive officer of Carnival Corp.'s Carnival Cruise Lines, told passengers via the ship's intercom: "I'm very sorry" and added: "I would like to thank you for all your patience and understanding that you showed throughout the situation."
Mr. Cahill earlier said the crankcase on one of six diesel generators "split," causing the fire. He doubted other ships in the Miami-based company's fleet were at risk.
The ship was 200 miles south of San Diego and about 44 miles offshore when the fire killed its power.