Divers searching a tourist boat that sank in Russia's Volga River discovered the bodies of some 50 people, most of them children, in a recreation room on Tuesday, an Emergencies Ministry official said.
The news will deepen anguish over a disaster that tore families apart, killing up to 129 people and underscoring concerns about the negligence, corner-cutting and corruption that troubles Russia. The official death toll rose to 72.
The Bulgaria, an overcrowded riverboat on a weekend Volga cruise, sank 1.85 miles from shore on Sunday after listing onto its right side in a thunderstorm. Authorities said 79 of the 208 people on board were rescued.
Emergencies Ministry spokeswoman Yelena Smirnykh said divers working their way through the wreck saw the bodies when they reached the recreation area, where survivors had said some 30 children gathered shortly before the boat sank.
"By their visual estimates, the bodies of about 50 people are there. Most of them are children," Smirnykh told Reuters.
She said psychologists who were sent to counsel grieving relatives of the dead had also been helping some of the divers, who by Tuesday had recovered 71 bodies from the riverboat that one survivor said had fast become a "metal coffin."
One woman was found on Sunday, making the official death toll 72, and officials said there was almost no chance of finding anyone else alive.
Emergency officials said the boat was meant for up to 140 people but was carrying 208, including 25 unregistered passengers. Most survivors were picked up by a passing riverboat after two commercial vessels passed without aiding them.
Prosecutors said the boat lacked a license to carry passengers and had a problem with its left engine when it set out for Kazan, capital of the Tatarstan region, after taking passengers to a town downriver on Saturday.
Day of mourning
Russia observed familiar grieving rituals on Tuesday, which was declared a day of mourning by President Dmitry Medvedev. Flags flew at half-staff nationwide and entertainment programs and advertising were restricted on television.
The country's deadliest river disaster since 1983 was at once horrifying and unsurprising for many Russians, inured to deadly accidents from air crashes and nursing-home fires to coal mine blasts.
Many disasters are blamed on negligence and corruption that pervade Russia despite tough talk from Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who vowed early in his 2000-2008 presidency to bring order with a "dictatorship of law."
Medvedev called on Monday for a "total examination" of passenger transport vehicles in Russia.
"The number of old rust tubs which we have sailing is exorbitant," Medvedev said.
But it may be difficult for Russia's leaders to shift the blame away from the state before parliamentary elections in December and a presidential poll next March.
"'The old tub' is our entire state," Vladimir Varfolomeyev, deputy editor at radio station Ekho Moskvy, wrote on his blog. "Poorly controlled, despite the notorious power vertical. It's thoroughly rotten, and therefore allows for operation of these leaky washtubs."
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 left port.
Medvedev has said he will decide soon whether to seek a new term in next March's election.
Putin has said he may seek a return to the presidency himself, but the two have indicated they will not face off against each other.