Russia pulls bodies of kids from Volga wreck
Russia mourned its worst river disaster on Tuesday as divers pulled the first bodies of children from the packed playroom of a pleasure boat that went down with more than 120 people on board.
Flags flew at half mast across the nation and songs were removed from television in respect to those who died when the 56-year-old Bulgaria lilted and sank to the bottom of the Volga River on Sunday afternoon.
Flowers and small candles filled the main embankment of the central Russian city of Kazan while relatives and shell-shocked survivors consoled 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).
More than 70 bodies including that of the captain had been recovered by Tuesday afternoon but there was still no certainty about how many people had actually been on board the heavily overcrowded craft.
The latest official lists showed the boat carrying 205 people in violation of rules permitting only 140 to use the two-deck craft.
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.
Divers reported their worst fears coming true overnight when they finally reached a cargo hold that was used as a music room and play lot for kids as young as five years old.
Survivors said dozens of children were ushered into the room as heavy rain pelted the decks only moments before the boat's still-unexplained accident.
"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.
Passenger lists show the boat carrying 30 children aged 14 and under and 28 youngsters under the age of 18.
But some survivors' accounts suggest higher figures because many boarded without official tickets. Some Russian media said there may have been up to 60 children on board.
"We have raised five children's bodies from the music room," a recovery operation official told RIA Novosti shortly after divers managed to enter the cargo hold.
State television said several shaken recovery workers had consulted doctors after finding the children's remains.
Officials said many bodies may only be recovered when the entire boat is pulled up by two giant cranes in a delicate operation set for Saturday.
Investigators are also preparing a series of criminal probes into why the ship set sail this weekend without a proper license and whether criminal negligence was involved.
The Bulgaria had developed problems to its left engine and began tilting slightly to its right long before its final voyage.
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