WALNUT CREEK -- Alexa Benedetti is finally home.
It took five days camped out on a deck of the stranded Carnival-owned cruise ship Triumph, a bus and two flights to get back, but Benedetti is not one to complain.
"We know we were lucky ..." she said. "I still don't believe it, but I didn't believe it (while on the stranded ship) either. I kept thinking, 'This isn't real.'"
Benedetti, 32, and six of her college friends were among the 4,200 passengers and crew members who found themselves stranded on the Triumph in the Gulf of Mexico due to a fire that not only knocked out the 14-year-old ship's propulsion system, but also its power, sewage, heating and air-conditioning systems.
A Peace Corps alumna who spent 18 months stationed in the Dominican Republic, Benedetti said the squalid conditions on the Triumph were so bad they were even worse than those of the most downtrodden barrios of her former home.
"It was dirty, miserable and disgusting," she said. "It was a public health disaster. The carpets on the ship were soaked with raw sewage, and there was poop literally dripping from the walls."
But the nightmarish week on board the Triumph did not start out as such.
Benedetti and her friends were happily reunited, spending days soaking up the Caribbean sun, catching up and enjoying vacation.
On Feb. 10, just two days after Benedetti turned 32, however, paradise came to an end.
Benedetti, who grew up in Walnut Creek and lives in Oakland, woke up to smoke blanketing the hallway of the first floor, where she and her friends were housed on the ship. An acrid smell hung in the air and crew members were pounding on doors, shouting for passengers to get up and get out. Benedetti and her friends moved to a deck on a higher floor.
Something was very wrong, Benedetti said, but they were told otherwise.
"We were told there was no need to evacuate, that we didn't need to wear our life vests," she said. "We were even told to go back to our cabin."
With only flip-flops, a bathing suit and a sun dress, Benedetti and her friends stayed put, as they would for the next five days.
The cabin they were told to go back to flooded. Pipes burst, sending gallons of sewage up through the floors and down off ceilings.
There were no emergency supplies, Benedetti said, and on the first day the ship ran out of water and peanut butter. Infant formula was nonexistent, and babies went without anything to eat for almost two days, she added.
Rather than restocking the essentials, other cruise ships passed off sodas and chocolate-covered strawberries to the stranded passengers, and when the beer started to go bad, the crew opened the bar and served free alcohol.
"I'm sorry, but getting a free soda is not the same as getting a glass of water," Benedetti said.
When the ship finally pulled into port in Mobile, Ala., early Friday, people went from singing "Sweet Home Alabama" to shouting "Let us off the boat!" as the CEO of Carnival Cruise Ships held a news conference before letting the passengers disembark.
Back in Walnut Creek, Benedetti's mother, Rhoda Benedetti, was glued to her computer, waiting for her daughter.
Rhoda Benedetti, who was in the middle of remodeling the family home, said she kept attempting to properly measure shelf paper for new cabinets in the kitchen, but said even that was too much, her mind constantly trailing off.
"It was a long. long, long wait," Rhoda Benedetti said. "Every story, every video, every everything that was on the Internet, I saw it. When she finally called, it was Valentine's Day. And I remember thinking, 'Now this really is (Valentine's Day)!'"
Once off the Triumph, Benedetti and three friends headed by bus to New Orleans, where for a day they stayed in a Hilton, courtesy of Carnival, ordered room service and attempted to eat.
But the room with a view overlooking the Mississippi River and the decadent dishes were too much. Instead, the women closed the windows, tired of seeing any body of water, and despite their best efforts, they could not keep much food down.
"I did cry when they brought me pecan pie," Benedetti admitted. "It's my favorite. I just sat there with my fork, crying."
When she finally walked out of the terminal at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday, Benedetti did not stop for hugs. She got in her parents' car and asked to be taken straight to her house in Oakland.
While Benedetti said she was cranky on the ride home, she finally broke down in her driveway. With her mother holding her, Benedetti sobbed, her sea legs still getting used to dry land.
Passengers not only will receive a full refund, have travel expenses paid and get discounts on future cruises, Carnival announced Wednesday passengers would each get an additional $500 in compensation.
"So much of what went wrong didn't need to go wrong," Benedetti said. "They had no plan. Our conditions were 100 percent avoidable."
Contact Katie Nelson at 925-945-4780 or follow her at Twitter.com/katienelson210.