Monday, July 11, 2011

Over 100 Fatalities in Volga River Accident

The Telegraph: Up to fifty young children are feared to be among the more than one hundred passengers who lost their lives in a tragic river boat accident on Russia’s River Volga on Sunday.

Fifteen minutes before the ageing Soviet-era vessel ‘Bulgaria’ capsized two miles from the nearest river bank, up to fifty children were shepherded into a room on the double-decker pleasure craft for a children’s party. Few of them, if any, are thought to have made it out alive, and one of the adult entertainers reportedly told them to stay where they were until the situation became clearer.

“About fifty people were trapped in the ship’s music room and most of them were children,” one of the rescuers told online news portal lifenews.ru.”Many of the ship’s doors also turned out to be locked blocking people’s escape, and one distraught woman told state TV that she lost her grip on her daughter as they tried to flee the sinking boat.

“Practically no children made it out,” the woman sobbed. “There were very many children on the boat, very many.” Relatives of the passengers gathered close to where the rescue operation was being coordinated to seek information about their missing loved ones on Sunday night. One man who said his wife and daughters were on board the doomed vessel implored rescuers to let him look at the few dead bodies recovered by divers so far. “Please let me look. Maybe my daughter is among the bodies,” he pleaded.

The ramshackle Soviet-era pleasure craft was on its way back to the city of Kazan some 500 miles east of Moscow with almost 200 people on board on Sunday afternoon as its two-day river trip drew to an end. But the trip had been marred by constant rain and strong winds and one of the vessel’s two engines had broken down, while eye witnesses said it had left port on Saturday listing heavily to the right.

The ship’s radio operator told the ITAR-Tass news agency that passengers and crew had begged the captain to halt the cruise due to the ship’s parlous state but that he had refused. “Somebody gave him the order to press on,” said the radio operator. “The captain did not come out and talk to people but decided to set off once again despite everything.”

The ship, built in 1955 in then Czechoslovakia, was also dangerously overloaded. Its maximum capacity was 120 people but it was said to be carrying closer to 200 people, some of whom did not even have tickets. As weather conditions worsened, survivors said they felt increasingly vulnerable. “He (the captain) should not have left port,” a survivor called Anna told the lifenews.ru online portal. “The weather was bad. It was stormy weather. What kind of cruise could there be for God’s sake!”

As the water got choppier and choppier and the wind rose, survivors said the boat got into trouble, that a giant wave swept dozens of people off the deck, and that it tried to perform a sharp maneuver against the river’s strong current. With one of its engines out, it did not have enough power however and flipped over sinking within a matter of minutes.

“It sank in two or three minutes,” said Liliya Khaziyeva, a spokeswoman for the Rescue Service. “We found dead people wearing safety jackets, people who were simply unable to leave the ship.” Some survivors said they had managed to clamber aboard a couple of life rafts, while a few others managed to swim to the bank. Wrapped in blankets to ward off the cold, some of the survivors said other boats had passed the drowning people but had not stopped to help.

“Two boats went by without stopping, even though we waved and waved,” Nikolai Chernov, a survivor, told state TV. Another woman claimed that tourists aboard one of the craft had filmed survivors in the water on their mobile phones as they sped past. Luckily another ship, the ‘Arabella,’ did eventually stop and plucked around eighty survivors out of the water.

Other reports said that the stricken ship had only two instead of the four lifeboats it was supposed to carry, and that a recent facelift had failed to address serious safety issues. Investigators said they had opened a criminal investigation into the tragedy that would look carefully at whether the ship’s captain and owners were guilty of criminal negligence and incompetence.

As divers laboured to bring up the dozens of dead bodies trapped in the submerged ship on Monday placing the fully clothed lifeless corpses on the deck of a nearby boat, a spokeswoman for the Emergency Situations Ministry said hopes of finding any more survivors was dwindling by the hour.

“According to the divers, the chances of finding anyone alive are minimal,” she said.

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