After days stranded at sea aboard a disabled Carnival cruise ship, passengers planted their feet firmly on dry land after a four-hour-long disembarkment in Mobile, Ala. overnight.

More than 4,220 passengers stuck aboard the powerless vessel for five days were finally able to abandon ship as medics, transport buses and curious onlookers greeted them.

Some passengers threw their hands up in the air and cheered as they left the ship, where they described living with food shortages and without working toilets.

Tug boats had been towing the ship from the Gulf of Mexico since Tuesday, after a fire broke out in one of the ship's six engines two days earlier. The blaze knocked out the ship’s forward propulsion, as well as air conditioning and bathroom facilities.

After disembarking, passengers were given the option of boarding a bus directly from Mobile to Galveston, Tx. or Houston -- roughly seven hours by bus -- or spending the night in a hotel in New Orleans, which is two hours away by bus.

Those staying in New Orleans were to be flown to Houston, the ship's starting point, at Carnival's expense on Friday.

At a Hilton in New Orleans, paramedics were on scene Thursday night with wheelchairs for sick or elderly passengers. There were long lines to check into rooms for passengers on their way home.

Passengers had described the ship as filthy, largely due to problems with the bathrooms. According to reports only a handful of toilets were in operation.

‘It was horrible, just horrible,” said an emotional Maria Hernandez, 28, of Angleton, Texas. Hernandez described waking up to smoke in her room Sunday, followed by days in foul odour and heat.

At one point, she and her travelling companions hauled mattresses to the upper-level decks to escape the heat.

“I just can’t wait to be home,” she said.

In a text message, Kalin Hill, of Houston, described desperate conditions while at sea.

“The lower floors had it the worst, the floors ‘squish’ when you walk and lots of the lower rooms having flooding from above floors,” Hill wrote. “Half the bachelorette party was on two; the smell down there literally chokes you and hurts your eyes.”

She said “There’s poor and urine all along the floor. The floor is flooded with sewer water … and we had to poop in bags.”

There were no fatalities aboard the ship, but one person who was on dialysis had to be transferred to another cruise ship and taken to a medical facility for treatment. Also, the Coast Guard said in a statement Thursday that it evacuated a passenger who suffered a stroke.

Efforts to drag the disabled ship back to shore were delayed on Thursday when the towline snapped off the coast of Alabama. A new tugboat was sent to secure the vessel again and continue towing it to the port in Mobile.

The cruise company disputed accounts that the ship was filthy, but as the ship docked Thursday, Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill apologized on the public address system as people were disembarking.

"I appreciate the patience of our guests and their ability to cope with the situation. And I'd like to reiterate the apology I made earlier. I know the conditions on board were very poor," he said. "We pride ourselves on providing our guests with a great vacation experience, and clearly we failed in this particular case.”

Other passengers described the crew members as helpful.

“They did their best to keep our spirits up, said 24-year-old Brittany Ferguson.

Ottawa sent consular officials to Mobile to assist any Canadian passengers.

Passengers are expected to get a full refund and discounts on future cruises, and Carnival announced Wednesday they would each get an additional $500 in compensation.

The ship left Texas on Feb. 7 for a four-day cruise, with 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew members on board. After the engine room fire knocked out power to the vessel, the ship was left drifting in the waters about 240 kilometres off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

Before the towline broke, the cruise ship was travelling about 8 km/h.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the incident.

With files from The Associated Press