Three guys drinking beer -- two of them waiting for their wives, one of them for his mother and his girlfriend.
They sat Thursday night in the bar of the Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel & Spa across the street from where the stricken Carnival cruise ship Triumph carrying their Valentine's night arrivals was expected to dock, watching the news on TV and waiting.
"I called here and all they had was suites left -- $500 apiece," Bill Jackson said. "I got four of them -- me and my wife, my son and his girlfriend, my son-in-law and his wife," and a couple with whom the women had shared their room. Its portside, seventh-deck balcony had offered fresh air, something their friends' lower-deck accommodations didn't.
The path to the bar was a long and tortuous one.
Jackson and the other men in his group left Houston Wednesday afternoon in a caravan, drove to Galveston to pick up another vehicle, detoured to Biloxi, Mississippi, where Jackson lost $100 and his brother-in-law lost $200 to the $5 slot machines at the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino, then continued on to Mobile, where they checked in to the Marriott property and headed to Joe's Cave.
"We're trying to get rid of this anxiety," he said.
The anxiety had been building since 2 p.m. Sunday. Jackson and his brother-in-law had been fishing for crappie in Lake Conroe outside Houston when his brother-in-law got a call from an 800 number. He picked it up and heard a recorded message from Carnival about his wife, a passenger aboard the Triumph. "It said there was a small fire in the engine room, but everybody's fine," Jackson said.
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A few minutes later, his own cell phone rang: the same number, the same message, this one referring to his wife, Sandra, a 53-year-old retired schoolteacher. The fire had started at 6 a.m., it said. But the message left no number to call, and the two men were unable to reach their wives, because cell phones don't work at sea.
"I called my daughter ... and asked her to pull it up online," he said. "Finally contacted their help desk or crisis center or whatever you want to call it."
But the help center was not much help, he said, and an hour or so later, they quit fishing and returned home. Though the ocean liner had been scheduled to return Monday at 6 a.m. to Galveston, "as time went on we realized that they weren't going anywhere," he said.
For each of the next few days, they received a recorded call from the 800 number with word about the progress -- or lack thereof -- aboard the Triumph.
Frustrated, Jackson, who decommissions oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico, sought help from a higher authority. "I went two or three levels up from that hot line call thing," he said. "I got a supervisor's supervisor named Carlos. He's been relatively good to talk to. I tell him, I say, 'Look man, I need rooms, and the only rooms I could find was these damned suites.'
"He said, 'Sure, go ahead and send us the bill and we'll pay for it.' "
In the couple's previous eight cruises, he said, they had always gone on Royal Caribbean, and had had little interest in changing. "She wasn't going to do the old Carnival thing; my son's girlfriend invited her to join this little group called the Girls Getaway. Like 30 of them out of Woodlands (a Houston suburb)." Sandra Jackson invited her brother's wife and they joined the girlfriend of the Jacksons' 30-year-old son, Billy. Three women on a cruise. "One of the ladies, she's got heavy, heavy diarrhea. They've all got coughs, sore throats." His own wife, he said, "is just burned out, really, mentally."
With the ship just a few miles away, Billy sits with an unopened bottle of champagne and roses. He and the other men watch TV news reports, drink beer, and wait.