Dry land is in sight, but Carnival Triumph passengers will have to spend one more night aboard the crippled ship described as a "nightmare" of filth.
In a press conference Thursday afternoon, Carnival said it will take another seven to ten hours for the Triumph to dock at port in Mobile, Ala., and up to five hours for the thousands stuck on board to disembark. The Triumph is the largest cruise ship ever to dock in Mobile.
The crippled cruise liner is carrying more than 3,000 exhausted passengers who have spent several days at sea without sufficient food, power or working bathrooms.
Helicopter footage showed the ship in the open Gulf of Mexico with passengers holding giant signs reading "SOS" and "Help! Get us to Eunice, LA."
Later Thursday, with the vessel in sight from shore, a cable snapped between the Triumph and one of the four tugboats dragging it to land, forcing a delay in the rescue.
'It smells like the zoo'
A fire in the engine room Sunday disabled the ship about 150 miles off the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. The flames were put out without any injuries, but passengers have described the conditions since as sweltering, unsanitary and becoming dangerous.
"It smells like the zoo ... it's horrible," passenger Shannon Caceres told NBC News in a telephone interview on Thursday afternoon as the ship approached land. After the power went out and toilets stopped working, the cruise staff instructed passengers to urinate into the showers and put fecal matter into plastic bags,which were regularly collected by room stewards and put into a giant trash bag, Caceres said.
She confirmed reports of passengers being fed onion-and-cucumber sandwiches, but said she has not touched anything the crew has prepared with their hands, choosing instead to subsist on potato chips and pretzels purchased from the gift shop. Many people on board have been getting upset stomachs, she said.
Caceres, who lives in Flower Mound, Texas, booked the cruise with three of her co-workers as part of an employee vacation. She described a ship that was descending into chaos, with reports of people looting rooms and taking laptops, phones and cameras.
'People were acting like idiots'
There were also frightening moments when the cruise staff began serving alcohol to passengers at one point during the ordeal.
"There were people screaming obscenities in the hallways, wasted," Caceres recalled. "People were acting like idiots. You have children sleeping out on the lido deck with drunk people running around, that's not OK."
Caceres, who is on Deck 8 in a room with a balcony, at first kept the door of her cabin open to allow a breeze to come in so that passengers with interior rooms across the hall would be more comfortable. But as reports of looting spread, she has kept the door closed.
Still, she was most scared at the beginning, when the fire broke out, alarms began going off and people stood terrified in the hallways with their life jackets on.
"I thought we were going to die," Caceres said. "I have never been that scared in my whole life."
Other passengers described a similar ordeal.
"Pipes are busting, I know the sewer is backing up, and water is in the cabins, and it's just a nightmare," Jamie Baker told TODAY on Thursday in a telephone interview from aboard the ship.
Baker said she and her friends slept with life vests one night because the ship was listing and they feared that it would capsize. Baker also said she saw one woman pass out.
"Like Katrina in the Dome, except it's afloat," Baker said.
Carnival has disputed passenger accounts and said that crews are doing the best they can, although Carnival has confirmed that fewer than two dozen public toilets are working. Baker told TODAY that the crew has been "phenomenal."
The disabled ship was going to be towed to the Mexican port of Progreso, but strong winds pushed it 90 miles north, and Carnival decided to tow the ship to Mobile instead.
Cruisers will be reimbursed
Passengers will get $500, reimbursement for the cruise and a credit for a future cruise, Carnival announced earlier this week. Carnival has also canceled its cruises through mid-April.
Passengers aboard the Triumph are being given the option of taking a bus to a hotel in New Orleans, to taking a bus directly to Houston or Galveston, Texas. Many of them will have long drives home from there.
The ship left Galveston a week ago and was to return there Monday.
Mary Poret of Lufkin, Texas, was in Mobile waiting for her preteen daughter to disembark. The daughter took the cruise with her father and has been talking to Poret by phone.
"She was scared that she would never get to see me again," Poret said. "It'll be the happiest moment of my life, probably, up until now. Except maybe holding her when she was born."
Lani Corbett, Caceres' mother, set up a Facebook page so friends and family of passengers could get and share information. By Thursday afternoon, the page had more than 2,200 "likes."
Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill has apologized to guests and families for "this very difficult situation." The cruise line has reserved 1,500 hotel rooms for passengers in Mobile and New Orleans, and 20 chartered flights will take passengers to Houston.
The Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the engine-room fire. The incident comes more than two years after another Carnival ship, the Splendor, was crippled at sea by a fire in the engine room.
The Triumph has 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew on board.
NBC News' Joe Myxter and The Associated Press contributed to this report.