More than a 100 feared dead in Volga boat disaster
Russian divers scoured the murky Volga River on Monday amid vanishing hopes of finding more than 100 people -- many of them children -- whose Soviet-era cruise ship went down in a heavy storm.
Rescuers confirmed two fatalities after picking up at least 77 people off the Bulgaria -- a 56-year old craft packed with about 150 tourists and more than 30 crew who were taking a traditional ride in a popular vacation spot.
But rescuers said the 47 divers who had reached the stricken craft by nightfall had found few signs of life.
"The results of the inspection show that the chance of us finding survivors are minimal," an emergencies ministry in Moscow official told the Interfax news agency.
Survivors and other witnesses described a Sunday afternoon storm that suddenly made the two-deck boat tilt right in a wide bend of the river before it capsized and sank in a matter of minutes.
Officials had initially placed their hopes on a string of 13 islets nearby that could have provided potential shelter for those who slipped into the current.
But several weeping survivors draped in blue blankets described how they had been unable to save loved ones, even another boat came to their rescue.
"My son-in-law telephoned to say that he held out his hand to his wife but she could not grab on," one man standing on a pier and staring into the water told Rossiya 24 state television. "He could not pull her out."
Another man, who was pulled to safety on board the passing Araballa vessel, told a Russian news agency that around 30 children had gathered in a playroom on the second deck moments before the accident.
"I fear they all died," the unnamed survivor said.
"It flipped over in three minutes and sank. Lots of people died."
Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu discussed the disaster by telephone with President Dmitry Medvedev and then issued instructions for rescuers to continue searching through the night.
The accident happened some 800 kilometres (500 miles) east of Moscow, near one of the widest points of the river -- just downstream from a reservoir that stretches more than 20 kilometres from (12 miles) from shore to shore.
The 80-metre (260-foot) boat sank some three kilometres (two miles) off shore.
State news reports said the Bulgaria was built in 1955 in what was then Czechoslovakia and was one of 36 craft sent to the Soviet Union.
The same kind of vessels are now used from rivers in Ukraine to distant parts of northern and Siberia.
One Russian television report said the Bulgaria been modernised and included comfortable cabins for up to four people.
But it added that some of the modernised craft are only equipped with two rescue boats -- and not the four the original models came with.
The Volga River has remained a popular summer tourist destination since the Soviet era and has not known major fatalities in the past.
The last shipping accident recorded by Russian state media occurred in September 2010 when seven people were killed on a lake above the Arctic Circle.
Perhaps the most notorious shipping disaster occurred when the Admiral Nakhimov collided with a cargo ship while leaving a bay on the Black Sea in August 1986.
Soviet reports said the boat sank within eight minutes and claimed the lives of 423 people.
© 2011 AFP