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Russian Riverboat Sank in ‘Minutes,’ Killing Up to 129 People

Russian Cruise Ship Carrying More Than 200 Sank in Minutes
Rescuers from Russias Emergency Ministry prepare to start work on the Volga River near the village of Kamskoe Ustie, around 130 km south of Kazan. Photographer: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images

As many as 129 people may have died when a 56-year-old Russian tourist boat sank in the Volga River yesterday, sparking a probe into safety violations on the unlicensed cruise.

Almost no hope remains for finding additional survivors from the Bulgaria two-deck river cruise ship, Emergency Minister Sergei Shoigu told President Dmitry Medvedev today outside Moscow. Of 208 people on board, 79 people were rescued, while 55 bodies have been recovered, according to the ministry.

Medvedev declared tomorrow a day of mourning, and he and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin expressed condolences. Medvedev, who pledged to fight corruption during his term, ordered an investigation into the operator and officials responsible.

“It sank in two or three minutes, very fast,” Liliya Khaziyeva, a spokeswoman for the Rescue Service from the neighboring Udmurtia region, said by phone from a boat near the accident site. “We found dead people wearing life vests, people who were simply unable to leave the ship.”

The incident is one of Russia’s deadliest passenger accidents since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Plane crashes in Irkutsk killed 125 people in 2006 and 145 people in 2001, according to the Aviation Safety Network’s website. It is the worst shipping disaster in more than 25 years, according to Alexei Klyavin, president of the Association of Shipping Companies.

Without Help

Nikolai Chernov, a survivor, said on state television that he saw at least two ships pass by without offering help.

The ship was returning to Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, from the town of Bolgar when it sank about 740 kilometers (460 miles) east of Moscow at 1:58 p.m. local time on July 10. It sank about three kilometers from shore, according to a statement on the Emergency Ministry’s website.

“About 30 children were being entertained in one room, according to passenger reports,” Khaziyeva said. Divers are working at depths of 7 to 14 meters, she said. Workers have combed the river banks and islands in an area where the water stretches into a reservoir about 30 kilometers across, she said.

The Bulgaria hadn’t been overhauled since 1980 and was running with a malfunctioning left engine, while the cruise was operated without a license to carry passengers, the Prosecutor General’s Office said on its website. The boat had passed an inspection this year, according to state television.

‘Complete Review’

The Bulgaria was listing to the right when it left Kazan, which may be one of the reasons it sank, Vladimir Markin, spokesman for the Investigative Committee said on state television. A criminal investigation has been opened into violations of transportation safety regulations, according to the Investigative Committee’s website.

Medvedev ordered “a complete review” of passenger ships, to be followed by repair or decommissioning for older boats. “The number of old tubs in operation exceeds all limits,” he said. “The government owns only a small number of these ships, but that doesn’t mean that the government should shirk control.”

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