Russia mourns victims of rig disaster as search continues

20th December 2011, Comments 0 comments

Russia's northern Murmansk region began a day of mourning Tuesday for 14 dead crew of a drilling rig that sank in icy seas, as rescuers searching for another 39 missing found several empty liferafts.

Rescuers continued searching for survivors into a third day after the Kolskaya rig sank Sunday in the Okhotsk Sea in far eastern Russia, but hopes faded as a ship spotted empty liferafts from the rig.

The rig had 67 people on board and 14 survivors were picked up on Sunday, after it sank in seas over 1,000 metres (3,280 feet) deep in Russia's worst water disaster since July when 122 drowned in a pleasure boat accident.

A container ship early Tuesday spotted a partially damaged lifeboat and a liferaft full of water, but neither carried any survivors or bodies, the federal sea and river transport agency said in a statement.

Officials said Sunday that four life rafts had been found with no one on board, with crew members in wetsuits able to survive freezing temperatures for only around six hours.

The platform was being towed from the Kamchatka peninsula across the sea towards the island of Sakhalin when it capsized and sank within 20 minutes after being caught up in a storm, as the crew waited to be airlifted off.

"It felt like in a movie... it keeled over... everyone was climbing on to the stern," one survivor, Sergei Grauman, said in televised remarks.

"Fourteen dead have been found in the water and 11 bodies have been lifted onto the tug ship Smit Sakhalin," the federal sea and river agency said in a statement, revising an earlier toll of 16.

Deputy far eastern transport prosecutor, Mikhail Stepchuk told AFP Tuesday that he could only confirm 11 bodies had been raised, cautioning that empty wetsuits in the water could be mistaken for bodies.

President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered a probe into the disaster.

The Murmansk region, where the rig's owner is based, began a day of mourning Tuesday with flags lowered and cancellations of entertainment events, the governor Dmitry Dmitrienko said in a statement.

"Today we are grieving and mourning all the victims of the terrible catastrophe that took place in the sea of Okhotsk," the governor said Tuesday in a video statement.

"We don't yet know the exact number of the dead and missing, but we already know that quite a large number of residents of the Murmansk region perished."

Investigators said Monday that they were probing breaches of safety regulations, citing the decision to tow the rig during a severe storm, and were to question the survivors.

Officials said the Kolskaya had experienced technical problems prior to the accident, and had been forced to pump water out of one of its air tanks due to a leak.

A rescue plane and two helicopters were sent out to scan the sea from the island of Sakhalin, the nearest land around 200 kilometres (120 miles) away, the regional emergency ministry said.

Seven survivors arrived in a Sakhalin port Tuesday by tug, while three others were to be flown over by helicopter, the Sakhalin emergency ministry said in a statement, with the men to undergo a medical examination.

The latest disaster comes after 122 people drowned in the Volga river in central Russia in July when an overcrowded pleasure boat sank in stormy weather.

The Kolskaya was engaged in shelf exploration off the Kamchatka peninsula for Gazflot, a subsidiary of Russia's gas giant Gazprom.

© 2011 AFP

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