- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 9, 2010

SAN DIEGO | A cruise line said Tuesday night that the first of several tugboats had reached the massive cruise ship stranded off the coast of Mexico and begun pulling it to San Diego.

Carnival Cruise Lines said in a statement that the first Mexican tugboat reached the Carnival Splendor and its 4,500 passengers and crew on Tuesday afternoon. More tugboats are en route. Initial plans were to tow the ship to the Mexican coastal city of Ensenada, but it will now be taken to San Diego, where it is expected to arrive late Thursday.

What began as a seven-day cruise to the picturesque Mexican Riviera stopped around sunrise when an engine-room fire cut power to the 952-foot vessel and set it adrift off Mexico’s Pacific coast. The incident left the passengers and crew with no air conditioning or hot water, with food supplies running low.

No one was hurt and, by Tuesday, U.S. Navy helicopters were ferrying 70,000 pounds of supplies, including boxes of crabmeat, croissants and Spam, to the stricken ship.

Accidents like the engine-room fire are rare, said Monty Mathisen, of the New York-based publication Cruise Industry News.

“This stuff does not happen, I mean once in a blue moon,” he said. “The ships have to be safe; if not the market will collapse.”

The last major cruise accident was in 2007, when a ship with more than 1,500 people sank after hitting rocks near the Aegean island of Santorini, Mr. Mathisen said. Two French tourists died.

The Carnival Splendor, 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.

The 3,299 passengers and 1,167 crew members aboard the Splendor were not hurt, and the fire was put out, but the 952-foot Mexican Riveria-bound ship lacked virtually all basic services. It was also out of cell-phone range, preventing families from communicating with their loved ones.

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. Coast Guard Petty Officer Kevin 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 were originally to have been driven 50 miles by bus to the California border, said Joyce Oliva, a Carnival spokeswoman, who added that she was not aware of any safety concerns from passengers or their families about traveling by land in Mexico.

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.

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