Russia says at least 116 died in worst river disaster

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Russian divers pulled the first bodies of children from the packed playroom of a pleasure boat that sank Sunday, killing at least 116 people in the country's worst river disaster.

Flags flew at half mast across the nation and songs were removed from television out of respect for those who died when the 56-year-old Bulgaria tilted to the right and sank to the bottom of the Volga River on Sunday afternoon.

The national day of mourning saw flowers and small candles fill the main embankment of the central Russian city of Kazan while relatives and survivors consoled each other over the vacationing families who lost their lives.

Russia's powerful Investigative Committee said in a statement that negligence on the part of the tour operator "led to death of at least 116 people."

It added that the head of the AgroRechTur tour operator and a local safety watchdog chief have been detained and face prison terms of up to 10 years.

Russia's search for survivors turned into a gruesome recovery operation in which dazed divers used life vests to bring up bloated bodies from a depth of about 20 metres (65 feet).

Divers reported their worst fears coming true overnight when they finally reached a cargo hold that was used as a music room and play lot for children as young as five years old.

Survivors said dozens of children were ushered into the room as heavy rain pelted the deck only moments before the boat's still-unexplained accident.

"The divers inspected the craft and found 30 to 40 children in the cargo hold," a member of the rescue operation told the Interfax news agency.

Passenger lists show there had been 30 children aged 14 and younger on board, although some survivors' accounts suggest higher figures as many boarded without official tickets.

"We have raised five children's bodies from the music room," a recovery operation official told the RIA Novosti news agency shortly after divers managed to enter the cargo hold.

State television said several shaken recovery workers received trauma counselling after finding the children's remains.

Officials said many bodies may only be recovered when the entire boat is pulled up by two giant cranes in a delicate operation set for Saturday.

Investigators are also preparing a series of criminal probes into why the ship set sail this weekend without a proper license, and whether criminal negligence was involved.

The Bulgaria had developed problems on its left engine and began tilting slightly to the right long before its final voyage.

Russia's transport minister said he also planned to investigate survivor accounts of how a barge and an oil tanker had passed the stricken craft without stopping as people struggled for their lives in the water.

"We know these ships and their captains' names," RIA Novosti quoted Transport Minister Igor Levitin as saying.

"We will use every means within the law to punish them as severely as possible," Levitin said.

A survivor named Nikolai Chernov told state television that "two boats went by without stopping even though we waved and waved."

© 2011 AFP

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