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Last day of cruise turns into nightmare for local group

angie.long@greenvilleadvocate.com

A group of Greenvillians recently planned to enjoy three days and four nights of tropical fun in the Caribbean.

Little did the cruise ship passengers know it would turn into a misadventure on the high seas, courtesy of Hurricane Katrina.

"It'll certainly be the anniversary we'll never forget," Johnny Autrey laughed.

He and wife Suellen were celebrating their 36th anniversary, his retirement, and the engagement of son William to Summer Martin. Lots of family and friends from Greenville and surrounding areas decided to join them, including Ronnie and Nancy Idland, Gene and Mary Martha Autrey, Debbie and Earl Martin, Laurie Martin, Olivia Idland, Russell and William Autrey, Kim Beverly, Josh and Jacob Pierce and Amy and Darren Bryan.

In fact, 18 cabins were booked on board Carnival Cruise Line's "Holiday," which left Mobile on Thursday, Aug. 25, at 4 p.m.

Passengers were slated to enjoy sun-filled

days at sea and a stopover in Cozumel, Mexico, before returning to Mobile on Monday morning.

That's the way it was supposed to go.

"Everything started out fine. Katrina was just a little tropical storm that looked like it was headed up the East Coast when we left," Autrey said.

Little did the Greenvillians imagine that "little storm" would turn into a major hurricane before they returned home.

The weather was pretty and sunny, Amy Bryan said, and everyone was having "a great time" – until they saw the devastation on the cabin TVs Monday morning.

"The ship stayed well away from the storm. We might not have known about it if it weren't for the TV reports," Bryan said.

The passengers were told the port of Mobile was closed, and they would be re-routed to either Galveston, Texas, or Tampa, if the Alabama port didn't re-open.

"They didn't say when we'd get into port. We didn't know what was going on here. We really feared a replay of Ivan back at home," Autrey said.

Bryan agreed the uncertainty was "driving us crazy."

"When would we get off, where would it be, who had lost their vehicles, how would we get home – were people and homes safe in Greenville? All those things were running through our minds," Bryan said.

As seas got rougher, certain dance shows were cancelled due to the motion of the ship, and Bryan said she was "downing Dramamine every four hours."

The cruise passengers found themselves spending an extra day at sea, wondering where they would end up.

The Holiday crew did try to make the best of a bad situation, Autrey said.

"The ship's performers put on additional shows for us. They gave dance lessons and had extra bingo sessions. And they got some more of our money," Autrey laughed.

Ultimately, the ship came into port on Tuesday, not Monday, in the calm waters of Tampa, Fla. – 600 miles from its original destination.

The Greenville contingent ended up chartering a bus to bring them back to Greenville that night.

"We were so happy to see the lights of Tampa. We felt captive on the cruise ship and were happy to be off, even it was a long way from home," Bryan said.

As it turned out, seven vehicles, including Bryan's Lexus, were flooded when Katrina hit Mobile.

Bryan's pretty philosophical about her loss.

"I only lost a car – an insured car – and I had another one at home I can drive," she said. "Thousands of people have no car, no house, and in many cases, lost family members. It makes my loss seem minor in comparison."

While the cruise line left them high and dry in terms of getting back to Greenville, Autrey said Carnival was giving all the passengers rebates in addition to their extra day aboard ship.

"It was a great group to be with and we had a great time on the cruise – until Katrina came along," Autrey said.