By Ed Payne, CNN
(CNN) -- Squalid, smelly and steamy, the crippled ship Carnival Triumph limped toward port Thursday, its passengers and crew looking forward to an end to their hellish cruise.
The laborious slog through the Gulf of Mexico tested not only the senses of the thousands on board, but their patience as well.
Rough weather overnight slowed the Triumph and the three tugboats leading it to Mobile, Alabama, and the ship is now expected to arrive at the port by 7 p.m. (8 p.m. ET), according to an official brief on plans for the ship's recovery. It had been expected by 3 p.m.
It's been a nightmare five days for the 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew members on board the 900-foot, 14-story Triumph, where a fire broke out in the engine room early Sunday.
Much of the ship's electrical power went down in the fire, causing widespread malfunctions, including taking out sanitary systems.
Passengers have reported sewage sloshing around in hallways, flooded rooms and trouble getting enough to eat.
"It's disgusting. It's the worst thing ever," passenger Ann Barlow said.
A 'floating petri dish'
Jorge Rodriguez, a doctor of internal medicine, said the sordid conditions on board make the Triumph a "floating petri dish."
"So far, there hasn't been an outbreak of anything, but ... it's in the Gulf. It's warm," he said. "You don't have sanitary conditions, so hopefully they'll get back to shore ... before anything breaks out."
Raw sewage is a major health risk, Rodriguez said, but respiratory infections could also spread quickly. Spoiling food could unleash E. coli bacteria, salmonella and other types of food poisoning.
"People on that cruise need to be careful for the next day to couple of weeks," he said. "They may have contracted something that's just sort of festering under the surface and won't come to full-blown infectious status for the next couple of weeks."
Carnival promises an army of about 200 employees will take care of its passengers once they clear customs.
Passengers can board buses to Galveston or Houston, Texas, or spend the night in a hotel in New Orleans.
Carnival said it has reserved and arranged approximately 100 motor coaches, more than 1,500 New Orleans hotel rooms, multiple charter flights from New Orleans to Houston on Friday and transportation from Houston to the Port of Galveston so that guests may retrieve their cars if they drove to the port.
Compensation for travelers
The cruise line said it would give each passenger $500, a free flight home, a full refund for their trip and for most expenses on board, as well as a credit for another cruise.
Brent Nutt, whose wife, Bethany, is on the ship, said it's not worth it.
"First of all, we only paid $350 for her to go on this cruise. Her safety and her well-being are worth a whole lot more than $350," he said.
And the free stuff?
"I promise you, none of my family members that are on there will probably ever, ever take another cruise," he said.
The Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board launched an investigation into the cause of the engine room fire. Because the Carnival Triumph is a Bahamian-flagged vessel, the Bahamas Maritime Authority is the primary investigative agency.
Travelers have few options for compensation in these cases, other than what the cruise line is already offering, according to travel expert Jason Clampet of Skift.com, a travel website.
"The passengers on the ship aren't going to have a great deal of recourse when they get home," he said. Travel "insurance really doesn't cover this sort of thing. Their trip wasn't interrupted and they aren't incurring extra expenses ... so they can't be compensated that way."
Still, there's no denying that the fire and resulting bad PR will hurt Carnival.
"It's a terrible sight, thinking of people trapped on a ship with limited food and filthy conditions, so I think people will think twice about taking a cruise," Clampet said.
The tension grows
Nerves are frayed on board, where passengers have waited in food lines for as long as four hours, said Nick Ware, whose mother is on the ship with her boyfriend. Ware said arguments are breaking out after people at the front of lines grab as many provisions as they can.
"The person in the front of the line is allowed to take however much he wants, so people see the person in front of them taking too much, (and) they start to get concerned they're not going to get any," Ware said.
People at the rear of the line ended up with buns and condiments -- no burger patties, he said.
Meanwhile, on shore, Kim McKerreghan waited at the Port of Mobile, worried about her 10-year-old daughter and her ex-husband.
Her daughter called her in a panic Sunday after the fire broke out.
McKerreghan said the call was absolutely "gut-wrenching."
"Momma, please just come get me, just come get me. It's so hot. I don't want to be here, Momma. Come get me, please," the scared daughter told her, McKerreghan said. "Your heart stops, your stomach knots up and you just want to fall to the ground."
Bad luck before
The fire is at least the second problem for the ship since late January, when it had an issue with its propulsion system, according to a notice posted on the website of Carnival senior cruise director John Heald.
And it's not the first fire to disable one of the cruise line's ships.
In 2010, the Carnival cruise ship Splendor lost power after an engine room fire, leaving it drifting off the Pacific coast of Mexico. The USS Ronald Reagan ferried 60,000 pounds of supplies for the ship's passengers and crew as the ship was towed to San Diego.
Anxious family members
McKerreghan drove from Texas with a friend, Mary Poret, whose preteen daughter is on board, with Poret's ex-husband.
Poret also received a frightening call from her daughter, about 30 hours after the fire.
"She was hysterical, crying hysterically. She was scared. She don't know what was going to happen next," Poret said.
"And what broke my heart the very most was her saying, 'Mommy, I don't know if I'll ever see you again,' and that's really hard to hear from your 12-year-old daughter."
After this ill-fated cruise, the Triumph won't host vacationing passengers until at least mid-April. Carnival has canceled a dozen voyages scheduled between February 21 and April 13. That makes a total of 14 scratched trips. The cruise line already had eliminated voyages slated for February 11 and February 16.
-- CNN's Tom Watkins, Chandler Friedman, Victor Blackwell, Tristan Smith, Joe Sutton, Mike Ahlers, Dave Alsup, Sandra Endo, Chuck Johnston, Esprit Smith, Greg Botelho, Katia Hetter and Marnie Hunter contributed to this report.