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20 Aug, 2009 06:50

More than 50 feared dead as search for dam break victims continues

Rescuers in Siberia have found more bodies following Monday's explosion at Russia's largest hydroplant. This brings the death toll to 17 people, with more than 50 still missing.

The generator hall where the accident took place is now being drained.

A second day of funerals is being held in the republic of Khakassia in Siberia. Relatives and friends of those killed by the disaster are grieving the tragic loss.

"Most of them were young,” said local resident Galina, who knew many of those who died. “This is sad and very frightening. We must remember this day, so something like this never happens again."

Meanwhile, Rushydro power-generating company, the plant owner, has promised to help the victims’ families.

"Children who are left without parents will receive financial support until they come of age,” said company spokesperson Evgeny Druzyaka. “The company will help them into higher education. Those who suffered will get rehabilitation treatment on the company's expense."

Rushydro is allocating one million rubles, equivalent to $31,000, to the family of each company worker who died.

Rescue efforts underway

Rescue and repair work has been going on for four days already and three miracle survivors have been found.

“One of them was knocking behind a concrete wall, and it took 30 minutes to dig him out once the rescuers heard him,” said Evgeny Tvardovsky, local news reporter. “He is safe now. Another man was trapped in an air pocket at the flooded level below the machine hall. He was rescued by divers.”

“Family members of those still missing waited all night at the observation platform of the power plant for any information,”
he said.

According to the regional emergencies ministry, over 1,000 people and 103 equipment units are taking part in the rescue operation after the incident, which has already been labeled as the worst industrial accident in modern Russian history.

Aside from the fatalities and property damage, the consequences for the region will be serious: electricity shortages and increased utility bills for area residents are widely expected.

Meanwhile, the rescuers have started pumping water out of the machine room. According to Emergencies Minister Sergey Shoigu, additional equipment and pumps will be delivered to the plant.

“A number of decisions have been taken to inspect bearing structures both above and below water,” the minister said on Tuesday.

“Specialist equipment's arrived to evaluate the strength of the buildings etc. There are also several teams of divers working here along with underwater robots.”

If the rescuers succeed in pumping water out of five hydraulic units, it will be possible to examine the area where the accident happened and see if there are people trapped there.

Emergency workers are also trying to contain an oil slick which resulted from the accident.
Drifting down the river and estimated to be over 25 square kilometers in size, it is causing major concern for both locals and environmentalists.

“The leak of oil during the accident has been hindering the works on the ground as well as underground. Divers managed to rescue two people that survived in underwater air pockets. This means there is always a chance to rescue people,” informed the head of Emergency ministry search and rescue team Aleksandr Resan.

The head of Greenpeace Russia’s energy unit, Vladimir Chuprov, said that his organization is calling for a freeze of the hydroelectric power program.

“We can see now how dangerous this is, and the consequences – and this isn't even the worst accident,” he said.

The exact cause of the August 17 tragedy on the plant will only be known after an investigation is completed.

A broken turbine sent a wall of water into the machine room, according to investigators. An amateur video taken from a mobile phone camera just several hundred meters from the plant supports this theory. A flood of water erupting from the machinery department of the power plant is clearly visible in the footage.

Water that normally flows down the dam's spillway through power-generating turbines ruptured one turbine and flushed debris into the machinery department, destroying everything in its path.

According to Emergencies Minister Sergey Shoigu, who’s now coordinating works at the site, the main theory behind the cause of the accident is the hydraulic hammer – extreme water pressure. But, he said, the causes of that are yet to be found.

Meanwhile, Aleksandr Toloshinov, former general director of the plant and a board member of the RusHydro power generating company, told Interfax agency that a hydraulic impact cannot be confirmed.

"A turbine was broken in the machine hall. Instruments indicated that it was not a hydraulic impact, but a broken turbine cover in the machine hall," he said.

A terrorist attack on the dam has also been ruled out by authorities.

"There's no confirmation of a terrorist act. No traces of explosives were found at the scene of the accident,"
said Vladimir Markin spokesman for the Federal Prosecutor's Investigation Committee.

"Forensic experts have examined the scene, collected turbine splinters, four video monitoring gadgets and the power plant log, and read data of the Cheryomushki seismological station. Witnesses are being questioned," he said.

Currently the world’s fourth biggest power plant is not working. Its second unit was completely ruined by the accident. Now the situation is under control, and, according to officials, there is no threat of flooding to local residents.

When it was opened in 1978, the vast power plant – covering more than a kilometer and standing 250 meters tall –was the pride of Russia’s hydroelectric power program. But that pride has turned to pain following the blast.