Image: Divers search for bodies after Slovenia canoe accident
Bor Slana  /  Reuters
Divers search for bodies Friday after two canoes overturned at a dam on Slovenia's Sava River.
updated 7/4/2008 5:32:46 PM ET 2008-07-04T21:32:46

Rescuers fought strong currents in the Sava River in southeastern Slovenia Friday as they searched for five people still missing after two canoes were crushed running over a dam. Divers had already recovered six bodies.

Three people managed to swim ashore after their boats crumpled, overturned and capsized, but two of them died Friday in the hospital, raising the confirmed death toll to 8, according to police spokesman Robert Perc. The third survivor remained hospitalized.

The accident happened late Thursday when two large canoes decided to run over a dam under construction near Sevnica, a town 56 miles southeast of the capital, Ljubljana. At that section, the dam — part of a hydroelectric plant — is currently built only to about the height of the water surface.

The trip — ominously dubbed "The Final Descent" — was organized by local officials and all participants were Slovenians. It was to be the last ride down that section of the river, which will soon be blocked by the hydroelectric plant.

Two other canoes left the river before reaching the dam site.

Sucked under the water
Slovenian TV journalist Goran Rovan, who had been in one of the safe canoes, told the state-run news agency STA the other canoes capsized and broke apart when they hit the whitewater passing through the dam gates. The occupants fell into the river and were sucked underwater by the rapids.

Slovenian TV showed chilling footage Friday of the canoes entering the dam, followed by the sound of screams. Then the boats were crushed and flipped over.

Rovan told STA that almost none of the victims wore life vests.

The rescue operation was hampered by the river's strong currents. More than 15 divers combed the river Friday, trying to find survivors or bodies. A police helicopter flew over the area, while police, civil protection and fire services swept the river banks.

In the evening Friday, the gates of the power plant were opened to create a surge in the hopes that it would wash up the bodies of the five missing that were believed to be trapped underwater, STA said.

Rescuers said they would continue the search overnight.

'A great tragedy'
Prime Minister Janez Jansa rushed to the site early Friday, declaring the accident a "great tragedy."

The rescuers "are doing everything that is humanely possible," he said.

Economics Minister Andrej Vizjak denied speculation that the dam could have been better secured or blocked. He told STA that those in the canoes had clear safety instructions, but some still "decided to take a dangerous descent." He called the accident the "consequence of a wrong human decision."

Perc said Sevnica mayor Kristijan Janc, who also is a member of parliament, was among the dead. Local media reported his wife, Ana, was the only survivor.

The Slovenian parliament canceled its Friday session.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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