Rescuers raise more than 50 bodies from Volga boat accident

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Rescuers recovered more than 50 bodies on Monday from an overcrowded pleasure boat that sank in the Volga River in an accident the Kremlin blamed on safety breaches.

The emergencies ministry reported raising 55 bodies off the vessel, the Bulgaria, which went down in a heavy storm on Sunday on one of Russia's main rivers with 208 people on board, reportedly including at least 30 children.

Only 79 people were rescued from the water after the sinking of the 56-year-old ship and hopes faded of finding any survivors on Monday after a search involving nearly a hundred divers, support vessels and helicopters.

Divers continued to search the wreck on Monday afternoon, after making more than 60 descents and finding the bodies of passengers including five children.

Most of the bodies were found trapped inside the boat in a music room on its middle deck, the emergencies ministry said.

President Dmitry Medvedev proclaimed Tuesday a day of national mourning and demanded a complete review of all Russian transport.

"We have enough old tubs floating around," Medvedev sternly told a government meeting in reference to outdated vessels.

"Based on the information we have today, the ship was in an unsuitable condition," Medvedev said in nationally televised remarks.

"We can already say today that the accident would not have happened had the safety requirements been met... despite the weather conditions."

One of Medvedev's top ministers told the government meeting that the craft was filled well beyond capacity when it sailed in breach of basic regulations from the central Russian city of Kazan, about 800 kilometres (500 miles) east of Moscow.

"All the witnesses that were on the boat have been questioned, we found out that there were 208 people on board," emergency situations minister Sergei Shoigu was quoted as telling Medvedev.

Officials had earlier said that the ship was not designed to carry more than 140 people.

The ageing vessel had engine trouble even before setting out on the cruise and was seen to be listing to one side, investigators said.

The general prosecutor's office said in a statement that the ship was last refitted more than 30 years ago in 1980 and had "no license to carry passengers".

Officials said the boat apparently sank too quickly to use the two lifeboats on board because it filled with water and went down within minutes.

"The water went inside very quickly as the boat turned over" before people had the chance to run to the upper deck, said emergencies ministry spokeswoman Svetlana Lebedeva.

Weeping survivors draped in thick blankets said lives were lost because 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, as another man who survived the accident burst into tears at his side.

Another man confirmed his story, saying that a river oil tanker and a barge passed by without stopping as the people struggled in the water.

The death toll of more than 50 already makes the Bulgaria disaster the biggest in Russia since the ship Admiral Nakhimov sunk in 1986 drowning 423 in the Black Sea.

Built in 1955 in what was then Czechoslovakia, the Bulgaria was nearly 60 years old, which is unacceptable but quite typical for Russia's river fleet, said the spokeswoman for the Russian tourism industry Union Irina Tyurina.

"All the ships that navigate Russian rivers are extremely old, and no new ones are being built," she told AFP. "For Russian boats, 50 years is nothing extraordinary, even though it's unacceptable."

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

© 2011 AFP

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