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Heavy storms hit Black Sea - 2 dead, many missing

The storm in the Black Sea has claimed its first lives. Two crew have died and one is missing after a ship carrying metal cargo sank early on Sunday in Ukrainian waters off Sevastopol. Fourteen people were rescued from the vessel.

The rescue operation continues but with great difficulty.

“Unfortunately, we have to admit in the last few hours the situation in the Kerch Strait and the weather have got worse. Now the waves are 6 metres high and the wind is gusting to 35 metres per second,” said Aleksandr Davydenko of the Federal Agency for Sea & Inland Water Transport.

At least seven vessels have been battered by a storm in the Black and Azov Seas in the south of the country. 

Two cargo ships each containing over 2,000 tonnes of sulphur have sunk. Eight crew from one of them are missing. All crew members of the other sulphur-containing vessel have been rescued.

Another cargo ship is in distress. 

An oil tanker has split in half spilling up to thirteen hundred tonnes of oil into the sea.

Both parts of the Volgoneft tanker are afloat several kilometres from each other. The thirteen crew members are currently in the stern using the engines to keep their part of the vessel on the water and are awaiting rescue.

Oleg Mitvol, Deputy Head of Russia's environmental watchdog and a member of the UN International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management, believes the fuel oil spill could lead to long-term contamination.  

“The eco system of the Black Sea and the Azov Sea is very sensitive and the amount of oil in the water now is very great. There's a lot of work to be done to minimise the consequences of this serious ecological disaster,”
he said.

Another tanker has a crack but it is not yet getting larger and there is no oil spill.

Russia and Ukraine are working together to deal with the accident, but the almost hurricane conditions are seriously hampering the rescue effort.

Officials say the weather forecast for the next 24 hours is not favourable for the rescue efforts.

Vladimir Erigin, the head of the Novorossiysk sea port, one of the closest ports to the incident site, says all the necessary measures are being taken to minimise the ecological damage to the area.

“We have all the resources to help us minimise ecological damage. If the wind changes direction to the southwest or the west, then most of the oil will end up on the shore. Our task now is to protect the coast line and to collect the oil. The black oil that spilt into the water has a very compact consistency and it won't spread significantly on the surface,” he said.

Sea port authorities also say that they'll wait for all the crew members to be rescued before they start cleaning up the oil slick.

Around 50 vessels were being relocated from the port of Kavkaz to safer areas as the weather in the region continues to worsen.

Meanwhile, authorities in the Crimea are assessing the damage the cities have suffered as a result of the storm. 

Strong winds of up to 30 metres per second have led to electricity cuts. Most internet providers have shut down their stations. Central heating and water supplies have been suspended on vast parts of the peninsula.

More ships in distress

A foreign vessel is reported to have sunk off the Sevastopol coast during the storm in the Black Sea.

The ship with 16 crew onboard was travelling to the Turkish city of Istanbul. Two of the crew managed to make it to shore and are now in a local hospital. The origin of the vessel is unknown.  

Several more dry-cargo ships have reportedly run aground due to strong winds. Among them are two Turkish vessels, one Georgian and one Greek.

Investigation of incidents starts

Local transport prosecutor Elena Velikova says the causes of the incidents are being investigated.

“There is no ecological threat at the moment and measures are being taken to avoid it.

Experts say that black oil in water becomes heavier in cold temperatures and that's why most of it is at the bottom of the Black Sea now.

The most important thing at the moment is to save the crews, to clean up the aftermath of the disaster and to prevent any further incidents,” she said.