Hundreds gawked from dockside at the arrival at the Alabama cruise terminal in Mobile, the state's only seaport, as the Triumph docked.
Taxis were lined up waiting for people, and motorists on Interstate 10 stopped to watch the exodus of passengers from the cruise ship.
Some still aboard chanted, "Let me off, let me off!"
It took six grueling hours navigating the 30-odd-mile ship channel to dock, guided by at least four towboats. Nearly 900 feet in length, it was the largest cruise ship ever to dock at Mobile.
In texts and flitting cellphone calls, the ship's passengers described miserable conditions while at sea.
Buses left the terminal over several hours. Up to 100 had been reserved to carry passengers either on a seven-hour ride to the Texas cities of Galveston or Houston or a two-hour trip to New Orleans.
Galveston is the home port of the ill-fated ship, which lost power in an engine-room fire Sunday some 150 miles off Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. It was the end of a cruise that wasn't anything like what a brochure might describe.
Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill apologized at a news conference and later on the public address system as people were disembarking.
"I appreciate the patience of our guests and their ability to cope with the situation. And I'd like to reiterate the apology I made earlier. I know the conditions on board were very poor," he said. "We pride ourselves on providing our guests with a great vacation experience, and clearly we failed in this particular case."
Passenger Ferguson said crew members tried to make the situation bearable.
"They did their best to keep our spirits up," she said.
Joseph and Cecilia Alvarez of San Antonio said some passengers passed the time by forming a Bible study group.
"It was awesome," he said. "It lifted up our souls and gave us hope that we would get back."
While the passengers are headed home, Triumph will head to a Mobile shipyard for assessment.
Earlier Thursday — four days after the 893-foot ship was crippled in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico — the passengers and crew suffered another setback with towline issues that brought the vessel to a dead stop for about an hour just as it was getting close to port.
As the vessel drew within cellphone range Thursday, passengers vented their anger.
In a text message, Kalin Hill, of Houston, described deplorable conditions over the past few days.
"The lower floors had it the worst, the floors 'squish' when you walk and lots of the lower rooms have flooding from above floors," Hill wrote. "Half the bachelorette party was on two; the smell down there literally chokes you and hurts your eyes."
She said "there's poop and urine all along the floor. The floor is flooded with sewer water ... and we had to poop in bags."
The company disputed the accounts of passengers who described the ship as filthy, saying employees were doing everything to ensure people were comfortable.
Carnival has canceled a dozen more planned voyages aboard the Triumph and acknowledged the crippled ship had been plagued by other mechanical problems in the weeks before the engine-room blaze. The National Transportation Safety Board has opened an investigation.
Passengers were supposed to get a full refund and discounts on future cruises, and Carnival announced Wednesday they would each get an additional $500 in compensation.
Kendall Jenkins of Houston won her first cruise as a contest prize. But she's never planning to set sail on a cruise again after the ill-fated voyage of the Triumph, despite the offer for another free cruise.
"This is my first and last cruise. So if anyone wants my free cruise look me up," said Jenkins, 24.
She and her friend, Brittany Ferguson, bounded off the ship Thursday night clad in bathrobes. They immediately kissed the pavement at the Port of Mobile, having spent their final minutes aboard jumping up and down excitedly.
Associated Press writers Ramit Plushnick-Masti in Houston, Stacey Plaisance in New Orleans, Bob Johnson in Montgomery, Ala., and Melissa Nelson-Gabriel in Mobile, Ala., contributed to this report.