Eight dead, 100 missing in Russian boat disaster

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An overcrowded cruise ship sank in a storm on Russia's Volga river killing eight people and leaving 100 others missing, official said Monday.

Russia's emergency ministry confirmed the death toll Monday but offered no official explanation for what could become one of Russia biggest ever boat disasters.

Sunday's accident happened three kilometers (two miles) from the shore near Syukeyevo village in Tatarstan, some 800 kilometres east of Moscow. The boat sank at one of the widest points of the river -- just downstream from a reservoir that stretches more than 20 kilometres from shore to shore.

While the boat, Bulgaria, had maximum passenger capacity of 120, up to 199 people were on board, emergency ministry officials estimated. Rescuers picked up some 80 people from the river leaving more than 100 unaccounted for.

Survivors and other witnesses described a Sunday afternoon storm that suddenly made the two-deck boat tilt right in a wide bend of the river before it capsized and sank in a matter of minutes to a depth of 20 metres (65 feet).

About 15 relatives hoping for news of their loved-ones stood huddled together Monday morning at the camp set up by the emergency situations ministry as a base for rescue efforts on the shore of the Volga river about 130 kilometers (80 miles) from regional capital Kazan.

Officials had initially placed their hopes for finding survivors on a string of 13 islets nearby that could have provided potential shelter for those who slipped into the current.

But several weeping survivors draped in thick blankets described how they had been unable to save loved ones after climbing on board a nearby craft that had rushed to their rescue, and some passing boats never stopped to help.

"Two boats went by without stopping, even though we waved and waved," said survivor Nikolai Chernov on state television.

He added that the cruise ship was very old, adding to fears that safety regulations were not observed and the boat was filled beyond capacity.

Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu discussed the disaster by telephone with President Dmitry Medvedev and then issued instructions for rescuers to continue searching through the night.

The transportation ministry later issued a statement saying the Bulgaria had passed a full safety check on June 15.

State news reports said the Bulgaria was built in 1955 in what was then Czechoslovakia and was one of 36 similar craft sent to the Soviet Union.

The same kind of vessels are now used from rivers in Ukraine to distant parts of northern Siberia.

The Volga River has remained a popular summer tourist destination since the Soviet era and has not known major fatalities in the past.

The last shipping accident recorded by Russian state media occurred in September 2010 when seven people were killed on a lake above the Arctic Circle.

Perhaps the most notorious shipping disaster occurred when the Admiral Nakhimov collided with a cargo ship while leaving a bay on the Black Sea in August 1986.

Soviet reports said the boat sank within eight minutes and claimed the lives of 423 people.

© 2011 AFP

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