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128 feared dead in Russian river boat accident

Russia said there was little hope of finding any more people alive on Monday after an overloaded tourist boat sank in the Volga River.
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

Russia said there was little hope of finding any more people alive on Monday after an overloaded tourist boat sank in the Volga River, killing as many as 128 people in Russia's worst river accident in three decades.

Eighty people were rescued on Sunday after the Bulgaria, a double-decker river cruiser built in 1955, sank 2 miles from shore in a broad stretch of the river in Tatarstan.

Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu told President Dmitry Medvedev that there was little hope of finding more survivors as divers brought up dozens of bodies from the vessel.

As many as 60 of the passengers may have been children, Russian media reported, and survivors said some 30 children had gathered in a room near the stern of the ship to play just minutes before it sank.

"Practically no children made it out. There were many children on the boat, very many," survivor Natalya Makarova said on state television. She said she had lost her grip on her daughter as they struggled to escape.

"We were all buried alive in the boat like in a metal coffin," Makarova said, who escaped through a window. "I practically crawled up from the bottom. My 10-year-old child was with me, I held onto her as long as possible ... I couldn't hold on."

Sania Zakirova waited on the shore at Syukeyevo for news of her missing grandson and pregnant daughter-in-law.

"No one is telling us anything. Are they alive or dead?" she screamed, wiping back tears. Her son, who survived, "was struck by a big wave that carried his son straight out of his hands", the Kazan resident told reporters.

A spokeswoman for the Prosecutor General said the Bulgaria was overloaded, had no license to carry passengers and a problem with its left engine.

Medvedev said the sinking would not have happened if safety rules had been observed.

"According to the information we have today, the vessel was in poor condition," Medvedev told a hastily convened meeting of senior ministers at his Gorki residence outside Moscow. "The number of old rust tubs which we have sailing is exorbitant."

Seeking to deflect possible criticism of the authorities ahead of the March presidential election, he called for a "total examination" of passenger transport vehicles in Russia and announced a nationwide day of mourning on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sent his condolences.

'The child is back there'
Cruises on the Volga, which cuts through the heart of Russia hundreds of miles east of Moscow and drains into the Caspian Sea, are popular among Russians and foreigners.

The regional Emergencies Ministry said they had raised 55 bodies to the surface, five of whom were children, but divers said they had seen more bodies trapped in the restaurant cabin of the Bulgaria, a 78-meter craft the ministry said was designed for up to 140 passengers.

Survivors said the boat listed to its side and sank in minutes on Sunday.

A survivor from the Bulgaria tourist boat, which sank on the Volga river, wraps herself with a blanket while talking on the phone after the arrival at the port of Kazan
A survivor (R) from the Bulgaria tourist boat, which sank on the Volga river, wraps herself with a blanket while talking on the phone after the arrival at the port of Kazan July 10, 2011. REUTERS/Roman KruchininStringer/russia / X01235

One survivor told the national news channel Vesti 24 that other ships refused to come to their aid.

"Two ships did not stop, although we waved our hands," said the man in his 40s, who stood on the shore amid weeping passengers, some of them wrapped in towels and blankets. He held another man, who was weeping desperately.

Mikhail Korbanov, the editor of Russia's River Transport magazine, said the sinking was the most deadly river accident since the Alexander Suvorov crashed into a railroad bridge on the Volga in 1983, killing at least 176 people.

There were sobs of relief as anxious relatives greeted survivors who were brought to the port in Kazan, Tatarstan's capital, late on Sunday.

"The child is back there, the child is back there," one man cried, wailing with grief as he hugged a woman tightly.

No recent inspections
The Federal Investigative Committee said it had confiscated documents from the company that owned the boat. Spokesman Vladimir Markin said investigators were looking into why the boat was listing to the right when it set out.

Lax implementation of safety rules are responsible for many of Russia's deadly accidents, from fires to plane crashes and mining disasters.

Another relative told regional official Grigory Rapota: "You cannot bring the children back! But find their bodies. I don't want money from you, I want to take them into my hands and bury them in peace."

The boat, which was built in Communist Czechoslovakia, had 208 people on board including 25 unregistered passengers, Shoigu said.

A tourism expert said the lack of partitions inside the Bulgaria made it vulnerable to breaches.

"In case of an accident these ships sink within minutes," Dmitri Voropayev, head of the Samara Travel company, told RIA Novosti.

Russia's Tourism Industry Union said the ship had not been inspected or retrofitted for years,  the Interfax news agency reported.