Russian boat in trouble before fatal sinking

AP News
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Posted: Jul 11, 2011 5:44 PM
Russian boat in trouble before fatal sinking

An aging cruise ship was severely overcrowded, had a malfunctioning engine and listed to one side before it sank in heavy wind and rain on a river east of Moscow, killing as many as 129 people, Russian officials said Monday.

River cruise boats are highly popular among Russian holiday-makers and the Bulgaria was carrying 208 people, including a large group of children, when it set off in stormy weather Sunday, officials said. It was only licensed to carry 120.

The ship was listing when the voyage began, possibly because of unemptied sewage tanks, and the port engine was malfunctioning, local investigators told state news agency RIA Novosti.

Survivors reported the ship leaned to starboard as it made a turn and a wave washed over the deck. It sank within about eight minutes, Igor Panishin, an official with the regional Emergencies Ministry, told RIA Novosti.

Survivors told Russian news agencies that about 50 children had gathered in the ship's entertainment hall shortly beforehand.

"It happened very fast. Hatches and windows were knocked out," said Vladimir Shirybyryv, who was waiting at a nearby port in Kazan for word about friends aboard.

Seventy-nine people were rescued and 58 bodies, including those of five children, were recovered. Emergency teams and divers from neighboring regions were searching for the rest of the passengers but hopes were dimming that any had survived.

The ship sank about two miles (three kilometers) from shore in about 65 feet (20 meters) of water in a spot about 450 miles (750 kilometers) from Moscow, officials said.

One survivor told the national news channel Vesti 24 that other ships refused to come to their aid.

"Two ships did not stop, although we waved our hands," said the man in his 40s, who stood on the shore amid weeping passengers, some of them wrapped in towels and blankets. He held another man, who was weeping desperately.

Transport Minister Igor Levitin was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying the captains of two ships that passed by and appeared to ignore distress calls would be prosecuted "in the harshest terms."

President Dmitry Medvedev on Monday demanded a thorough investigation and declared Tuesday a day of mourning. He also called for a full technical assessment of the condition of all Russia's passenger vessels.

The Volga, Europe's longest river, is up to 19 miles (30 kilometers) wide in places. The river is a popular tourist destination, especially in summer months.

The Bulgaria was built in 1955 in Czechoslovakia and belongs to a local tourism company. It was traveling from the town of Bulgar to the regional capital, Kazan.

A tourism expert said the lack of partitions inside the Bulgaria made it vulnerable to breaches.

"In case of an accident these ships sink within minutes," Dmitri Voropayev, head of the Samara Travel company, told RIA Novosti.

Russia's Tourism Industry Union said the ship had not been inspected or retrofitted for years, according to the Interfax news agency.

The Transportation Ministry said Russia has 1,568 registered passenger vessels _ more than 100 are as old or older than the Bulgaria.

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Associated Press writer Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.