North Charleston woman recalls days stuck aboard Carnival Triumph

Passengers prepared makeshift tents on the deck of the stricken Carnival Triumph cruise ship in the Gulf of Mexico.

Ruth McGarrah, 37, of North Charleston and six family members spent a harrowing five days stuck aboard the disabled cruise ship Carnival Triumph with little food and no electricity.

The trip started out perfectly, said McGarrah.

“We had a blast playing bingo and going to the casino,” she said.

McGarrah enjoyed a brief trip to Cozumel, Mexico, and was on her way back home when she and her family unexpectedly woke to an electrical smell the morning of Feb. 9.

McGarrah got out of bed, stepped out of her room and saw smoke rising in the hallway.

The group grabbed their life jackets and headed toward the ship’s upper decks. But with the reassurance of crew members, she said they felt confident that the problem wouldn’t take long to fix.

“At that point one of our friends was freaking out. We kept trying to calm her down, telling her, ‘It’s just smoke. We’ll probably be underway by noon.’ But the day just kept going on and on,” McGarrah said.

As hours went by with no solution, she said her family soon realized that a fire in the ship’s engine room caused more damage than they anticipated.

They were stuck, she said, “and there was nothing the crew could do about it.”

By the second day of “bopping around in the ocean,” a gut-wrenching smell had filled the ship as sewage overflowed within its cabins, McGarrah said.

“The smell would just choke you,” she said. “The sewage, the smell of rotting food, people not showering — the smell was so bad I couldn’t stomach anything except an apple.”

A food shortage and limited water further intensified the already traumatic experience, she said.

She reached her breaking point, she said, when she wasn’t able to call her husband, Robert McGarrah, for comfort.

“We’ve been married a long time and I’ve never not been able to talk to her. But there’s no cellphone service and knowing that the situation on the trip was deteriorating — you can’t help but worry,” Robert McGarrah said.

Crew members played music to help calm the restless passengers, Ruth McGarrah said.

“This crew was phenomenal. They were going on less sleep than us and less food than us, but they still always had a smile,” McGarrah said.

After five days, the Carnival Triumph was towed into Mobile Bay in Alabama on Thursday. McGarrah was able to call her husband for the first time since the ordeal began.

“I was very excited to hear from her, but it was hard because she was still 12 hours from land because the ship was moving so slow,” Robert McGarrah said.

McGarrah has been on land for almost a week, but she said she’s still struggling to get her appetite back.

Reach Christina Elmore at 937-5908 or at

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