Russia mourns its worst river disaster
Russia mourned its worst river disaster on Tuesday after the shock discovery that up to 40 children were trapped in a playroom on the pleasure boat that sank with 120 people on board.
Flags flew at half mast across the nation and songs and other entertainments were removed from television as a mark of respect to those who died when the 56-year-old Bulgaria excursion boat went down in a storm on the Volga River on Sunday afternoon.
Flowers and small candles began to fill the main embankment of the central Russian city of Kazan as relatives and shell-shocked survivors sought to console each other over the vacationing families who lost their lives.
"More than 100 people have died," the government's Rossiyskaya Gazeta said in comments that no senior officials has yet dared to utter in public.
"The country mourns the victims of this catastrophe."
The search for survivors has turned into a gruesome recovery operation in which dazed divers used life vests to bring up bloated bodies from a depth of about 20 metres (65 feet).
Some 65 bodies including that of the captain had been recovered by Tuesday morning but there was still no certainty about how many people had actually been on board the heavily overcrowded craft.
Russia's emergencies minister told President Dmitry Medvedev that the Bulgaria carried 208 people in gross violation of rules permitting only 140 people to use the two-deck craft.
The local emergencies ministry on Tuesday said 205 people may have been on board as officials sifted through contradictory lists of those who did and did not buy tickets for the two-day ride.
But the number of survivors refused to edge up beyond the 79 people reported on Sunday and the pain of what happened on one of Russia's most important rivers was becoming increasingly unbearable Tuesday.
The nation woke up to news that divers had spent nearly 24 hours scouring the turbulent waters before encountering a cargo hold on the boat that was set up as a children's play area with a sandpit.
Officials said their worst fears were confirmed with that find.
"The divers inspected the craft and found 30 to 40 children in the cargo hold," a member of the rescue operation told the Interfax news agency.
His comments supported earlier survivors' reports of dozens of children entering the playroom only moments before the boat sank.
The rescuer said the children's bodies would only be recovered once the entire ship is raised in a delicate operation requiring the help of special barges equipped with cranes.
"The current is very strong in that section of the river," he said.
State television said several shaken divers had consulted doctors after finding the children's remains.
Officials are preparing a series of criminal investigations into why the Bulgaria set sail this weekend without a proper operating license and whether criminal negligence was involved.
Russia's transport minister added that he planned to investigate survivor accounts of how a barge and an oil tanker had passed the stricken craft without stopping while people struggled in the water for their lives.
"We know these ships and their captains' names," RIA Novosti quoted Transport Minister Igor Levitin as saying.
"We will use every means within the law to punish them as severely as possible," Levitin said.
A survivor named Nikolai Chernov told state television that "two boats went by without stopping even though we waved and waved."
© 2011 AFP