Hopes dim for survivors in Russia rig disaster

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The bodies of 14 crew members from a sunken drilling rig were found off Russia's far eastern island of Sakhalin Monday as hopes faded that 39 still missing could be pulled out of the icy waters alive.

The hunt for survivors from the Kolskaya rig that sank Sunday in the Okhotsk Sea went into a second day as rescue officials refused to declare that the missing were dead.

Fourteen people were rescued on Sunday and the operation continued through the night despite strong winds and waves around five metres (15 foot) high.

The platform with 67 people on board was being towed from the Kamchatka peninsula across the sea towards Sakhalin island when it capsized and sank within 20 minutes after being caught up in a storm.

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

Officials released conflicting figures on the death toll Monday and the owner of the Kolskaya had 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 an earlier toll of 16.

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

Rescue teams were still clinging to the hope that more crew members could be found alive even after more than 24 hours in the icy seas.

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

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

Yury Melikhov, director of the rig's owner Arktikmorneftegazrazvedka (AMNGR), told reporters 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 after transportation prosecutors and the emergencies ministry said the information was incorrect.

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

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

The Kolskaya keeled over at 0145 GMT Sunday and sank in water more than 1,000 metres (3,000 feet) deep as the crew was waiting to be airlifted off, according to the authorities.

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 violations of safety regulations during the towing of the platform and disregard of poor weather conditions as the main reasons for the incident, since there was a severe storm in the area," the Investigative Committee said.

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.

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

There has as yet been 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 Kolskaya was engaged in shelf exploration off the Kamchatka peninsula for Gazflot, 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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