50 children feared dead in Russian boat tragedy
PARENTS of up to 50 children feared drowned when a boat capsized in Russia on Sunday joined dozens of other relatives on the banks of the Volga as divers began the task of recovering bodies yesterday.
Corpses, some still clad in orange life jackets, were laid out on the deck of a ship moored on the shore of Europe's longest river. Small rectangles of white linen were tied to the victims' ankles, giving them a number but not a name.
Down river, the anxious relatives of those missing in Russia's worst river accident in three decades spent the day waiting, desperate for information.
"We have not got the slightest idea of what is going on," said one woman. "We are calling the search and rescue service but they do not even answer the phone."
As the day wore on, it became clear that those declared unaccounted for were dead. As many as 50 of the victims were feared to be children who died locked in a play room, where they were sent 15 minutes before the double-decker Soviet-era pleasure craft sank, and from which they were unable to escape.
Divers had raised more than 50 bodies by yesterday evening, including at least five children.
Survivors said many of the ship's doors were locked when they tried to escape, and one woman told state TV how she lost her daughter as they fled.
"We were all buried alive in the boat like in a metal coffin," said Natalya Makarova, who escaped through a window. "My 10-year-old child was with me, I held on to her as long as possible, [but] I couldn't hold on. Practically no children made it out. There were very many children on the boat, very many."
The dilapidated ship, called Bulgaria, was on its way back to the city of Kazan, 450 miles east of Moscow, on Sunday afternoon at the end of a two-day cruise. The trip had been marred by rain and strong winds, and one of the vessel's two engines had broken down. Witnesses said it left port listing heavily to starboard.
The ship's radio operator told the Itar-Tass news agency that passengers and crew had begged the captain to halt the cruise because of the ship's parlous state but that he had refused. "Somebody gave him the order to press on," he said. "The captain did not come out and talk to people but decided to set off once again despite everything."
The boat, built in 1955 in Czechoslovakia, was not even licensed to carry passengers and was dangerously overloaded. Its maximum capacity was 120 people, but it was said to be carrying 208, 128 of whom are feared dead.
As weather conditions worsened, passengers said they felt increasingly vulnerable. "He [the captain] should not have left port," a survivor called Anna told Life News. "The weather was bad. It was stormy weather. What kind of cruise could there be, for God's sake?"
The boat got into trouble and tried to perform a sharp manoeuvre against the strong current.
With one of its engines out, it did not have enough power and capsized. (© Daily Telegraph, London)