14 bodies found, 39 feared dead in Russian oil rig disaster

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The bodies of 14 crew from a sunken oil rig were located Monday off Russia's Sakhalin island as searches for survivors went into a second day amid fears that 39 missing would not be found alive.

Officials earlier Monday released conflicting figures of the death toll and the owner of the Kolskaya oil rig even claimed that rescuers had spotted a raft with around 15 possible survivors before backtracking.

"According to the most recent information, 14 dead have been found," the federal sea and river agency said in a statement, revising downwards the earlier toll of 16.

Transportation prosecutors also put the death toll at 14, while the emergencies ministry said they had pulled 11 bodies out of the water.

A jack-up oil rig, the Kolskaya, with 67 people on board was being towed from the Kamchatka peninsula across the sea towards Sakhalin island when it got caught up in a storm, capsized and sank within 20 minutes on Sunday.

Fourteen crew members were rescued Sunday and another four people in wetsuits were located in the water showing no signs of life. Rescue workers were unable to pull them out until Monday.

Emergency authorities have refused to presume the missing dead and stubbornly clung to hopes that more crew members could be found alive even after spending hours in the frigid waters of the Okhotsk Sea.

"We are hoping for a miracle," Natalia Salkina, a spokeswoman for transportation prosecutors, said from the far eastern city of Khabarovsk.

Yury Melikhov, director of the rig's owner Arktikmorneftegazrazvedka (AMNGR), told reporters Monday that aircraft had spotted a life raft with around 15 people but it was not possible to say whether they were dead or alive.

Company spokesman Andrei Bobrov later backtracked on the statement, after transportation prosecutors and the emergencies ministry said the information was incorrect.

The rescue operation continued through the night despite strong winds and waves around five metres (15 feet) high.

Officials said Sunday that four life rafts were found with no one on board.

The Kolskaya keeled over at 0145 GMT Sunday and sank in water that was more than 1,000 metres (3,000 feet) deep, according to authorities.

President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered a probe into the disaster, telling officials to provide victims with all necessary assistance.

Officials suspect that violations of safety rules, a frequent cause of accidents in Russia, may have contributed to the disaster.

"The investigation is looking into safety regulation violations during the towing of the platform and a disregard of poor weather conditions as the main reasons for the incident, as there was a strong storm in the area," the Investigative Committee said.

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

Officials had earlier said wetsuits could protect people from frigid temperatures for around six hours.

"This is a horrible tragedy which caught the crew off guard," said Dmitry Dmitriyenko, governor of the northern Murmansk region, home to at least 33 of the 67-strong crew.

As of Monday afternoon, there was no public reaction from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who plans to reclaim his old Kremlin job in a March presidential poll.

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.

In August 2000, the Kursk submarine sunk in the Barents Sea with the loss of all 118 aboard. An inquiry found that a torpedo had exploded, detonating all the others.

The catastrophe was notorious for the slow reaction of then president Putin who stayed on holiday by the Black Sea.

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

The risk of an oil spill from the platform was minimal, officials said.

© 2011 AFP

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