16 bodies found, 37 feared dead in Russian oil rig disaster

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The bodies of 16 crew from a sunken oil rig were found Monday off Russia's far eastern Sakhalin island as searches for survivors went into a second day as fears mounted that another 37 missing would be dead.

"Sixteen bodies have been found since the start of the operation," the federal sea and river agency said in a statement, adding that seven bodies have been pulled out of the water.

Regional spokeswoman for transport prosecutors, Natalia Salkina, citing her own information, put the number of the bodies located in the searches at 14.

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," Salkina said from the far eastern city of Khabarovsk.

The rescue operation was continuing through the night even though efforts were hampered by strong winds and waves around five metres (15 feet) high.

An Mi-8 helicopter, the Magadan icebreaker and two more vessels were involved in the searches.

Earlier in the day a plane found two empty rafts at the site of the accident, Alexander Ivelsky, emergencies ministry spokesman from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, told AFP.

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.

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

Officials suspected 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.

They said the crew's commander had told everyone to put on wetsuits but it was unclear whether everyone had the time to do so.

"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.

"I am asking you to believe in the rescue of the crew members, there is still a chance," Dmitriyenko said in a statement on Sunday.

There was no immediate 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 Kolskaya rig belonged to state-owned company Arktikmorneftegazrazvedka (AMNGR) based in the northern city of Murmansk.

It 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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