Over 100 missing after pleasure cruiser sinks in Central Russia

At least eight people have died after a pleasure ship with 185 onboard, the “Bulgaria,” sank in the Volga River near the Russian city of Kazan. More than 100 people are still missing.

There were 185 people on board, including 148 passengers. Russia’s Emergencies Ministry has published a full list on its website of those who were on the vessel.

Among the passengers of the ship were at least 52 tourists under 18 years of age.

One female passenger was instantly killed. Rescuers later lifted from the water the body of a second woman. Divers inspecting the sunken vessel underwater have lifted four more bodies, including the body of a girl. But reportedly found a lot more bodies.

Over 100 people are now feared to have drowned. 

According to the list published on the website of the lministry, there are 80 rescued passengers and crew members. 

Divers have already located the vessel and were tapping it in the hopes of hearing a return signal.  They say the ship is tilted to the right.

“We knocked on the boat’s hull and waited for an answer,” said the head of the local department of Russia’s Emergencies Ministry, Igor Parshin. “But unfortunately there was nothing. They flashed lights into the cargo holds and restaurants and they saw bodies there.”

“The top priority was to inspect the music hall, restaurants and bars where people usually gather,” RIA Novosti quoted Igor Parshin as saying. “We have gone along the hull of the vessel, knocking on it, waiting for a return signal. But unfortunately there were no return signals. We have lighted up holds and restaurants. There are people there. But not a single one alive.”

At the moment 9 people are in hospital with minor injuries, such as cuts and bruises. 5 of 14 initially hospitalized have been sent home.  All of the victims are in need of psychological help, according to Airat Farakhov, a representative of the Ministry of Public Health of Russia's Republic of Tatarstan.

The rescued have been transferred to Kazan on a three-deck vessel, “Arabella”.

“Rescue teams left for the scene as soon as reports came in. The first to be rescued were those survivors who were taken onboard by a passing ship, which has now docked in Kazan. Some passengers reportedly managed to swim toward nearby islands, which are now being searched. One woman is confirmed to have died, while another man has been hospitalized with injuries. Seventy-seven passengers have been rescued,” said Tatarstan Emergencies Minister Marat Rakhmatullin.

The Emergencies Ministry said the ship sank at a depth of 20 meters about three kilometers away from the shore.

Helicopters and motorboats are at the scene, searching for other passengers. Rescuers are searching the shore too. 

“Your main goal is to survey the shores, divide them into sectors and appoint people responsible for each area,” Russia’s Emergencies Minister Sergey Shoigu instructed the rescuers. “You should check all the 13 islands, and I want to see a final report with conclusions that no people were found there.”

“Divers are now entering the cruise ship. Using a boat at the scene is useless, as the waves are 1.5-meters high. All we are currently able to do is to communicate with the divers by radio.,"  announced the head of Tatarstan’s search-and-rescue service, Emil Fazleev.

The rescue operation involves 307 people, including 49 divers and 73 units of special equipment.

Meanwhile, Interfax news agency reports that more than 300 local police are taking part in the rescue operation, as well as Interior Ministry and Emergencies Ministry helicopters.

Thirteen islands are situated not far from the site of the accident, and aircraft will conduct over-flights in an effort to spot any “Bulgaria” survivors who might have made it to shore.

Despite the onset of darkness, rescue divers have worked on the site where the “Bulgaria” sank throughout the night, a source in the Emergencies Ministry stated.

“ River islands to which people may have been able to swim to are far from where the boat went down. Strong currents are making the search mission increasingly difficult, because people may have been swept several kilometers away,” local journalist Ilshat Nizamidinov told RT.

­“Many children died” – survivor

One of the rescued passengers from the “Bulgaria” says many children may have become victims of the tragedy.

According to the man, a group of about 30 youngsters gathered in the children’s room on the second deck for games just a few minutes before the accident.

“I am afraid that many of them died," he said.

The survivor believes the old age of the ship is the main reason it sank.

"At some point, it fell on its right side, turned upside-down in just three minutes, and went down to the bottom,” he said. “There was a thunderstorm and heavy rain at that moment. There are very many casualties.”

“People were basically buried alive as if in a metal sarcophagus. We managed to get out through the windows,” recounted another survivor. “I was there with my 10-year-old daughter. I could not rescue her, she swallowed too much water. When I was pulled out, I realized my child was gone.”

“We don't know where to look for survivors. There were a lot of children onboard. Even more than adults,” she continued. “My daughter came running to me and my husband two or three minutes before the ship sank and told us: please, wear your life jackets as the vessel is sinking. I could not believe it.”

Svetlana Alekseeva, a staff member on the “Arabella” cruise ship which was the first vessel to reach the site of the tragedy and pick “Bulgaria” passengers out of the water, says passengers on the capsizing ship did not have enough time to launch the lifeboats, and that only two lift rafts opened up.

She also said that those who were inside their cabins could not have survived and that the captain was killed.

The vessel, Alekseeva said, sunk in just two minutes. She added that two cargo vessels passed by the drowning people but did not help. According to Alekseeva, when tragedy struck it was raining heavily and the wind was blowing fast.

Later one of the survivors stated that two barges passed by without stopping to help, despite signals of distress.The man lost his wife and grandson in the tragedy. "The vessel sank within three minutes,” he said. “It flipped to the right side, twisted and went down.  There were no explosions. We were literally thrown out, that's how we survived.”

“The vessel sank in about two minutes,” said Larisa Shalygina, a representative of acompany operating another search-and-rescue ship. “The crew that was working told me they noticed water coming in through the windows. At such a pace, the boat went down very quickly. When we were surveying the area where the cruise ship sank, we didn't find any survivors. It was only then that we left the scene. I'd like to say that all such vessels are old and should have been properly maintained.”

Psychologists are currently working with the survivors from “Bulgaria”. Many of those who drowned were close relatives of other passengers, as Volga River cruises are a popular family vacation both among Russians and foreign tourists.

Byt the relatives of those missing complain there is no information about their loved ones.

“We called the police, but they said to contact the search-and-rescue service,” said one relative of a passenger. “We did, but there was no reply.  So we came here to the port to find out at least something. But even here nobody knows anything.”

“It's horrible,” another relative said. “We haven't the slightest knowledge of what's going on. They should give us at least some information. We are calling the search-and-rescue service, but they don't answer the phone.”

Tatarstan’s President Rustam Minnikhanov has cut short his vacation over the accident and  has returning to Kazan. Rustam Minnikhanov has arrived at the site of the tragedy to personally head the emergency operation center.

The Republic’s Minister of Health, Airat Farrahov, is at the scene. The republic's hospitals have been prepared to receive victims.

The head of Tatarstan’s presidential press service, Andrey Kuzmin, said that "the situation is being kept under control".

An Emergencies Ministry's IL-76 helicopter has arrived in Kazan. Aboard the helicopter there are psychologists, rescuers and divers from the “Leader” center and the “Tsentrospas” detachment.

The Russian Ministry of Transport set up a crisis center that is looking into the cause of the disaster. A group of investigators and criminal law experts from the Russian Investigation Committee have flown from Moscow to Tatarstan to help look into the accident.

Operational error is currently considered the likeliest cause of the accident, a source in the investigation told Itar-Tass.

“According to a preliminary investigation, the vessel could have sunk because it was too old,” the source said. "Overloading is also not excluded [as a reason]. There’s no information that the cruiser collided with something.”

A criminal case has been initiated over what caused the accident.

­The “pleasure” ship

The two-deck “Bulgaria” belonged to a travel company “Agrorechtur”. The vessel was built in 1955 in former Czechoslovakia.

The ship passed a scheduled examination in the middle of June, and was declared suitable for operation, the Russian Transportation Ministry reported on Monday.

"According to the Russian water transportation register, the MS Bulgaria passed a scheduled examination on June 15, 2011. The ship was found operational in all features," the ministry stated, according to the Itar-Tass news agency.

According to the director of “Argorechtur”, the “Bulgaria” was in good repair.

"All the repairs were made, it was accepted into the registry, everything was OK," Svetlana Imyakina, the director, told the Itar-Tass news agency.

According to Imyakinova, the ship fully met the requirements of an economy-class passenger ship, and at the moment it is difficult to ascertain exactly what happened.

However, the Russian online tabloid LifeNews reports the sunken vessel had an engine failure, but the ship’s captain made a decision to leave despite the breakdown in the motor room. The tabloid says one of the crew members told them that several hours before departure the crew found out one of the two engines was not working properly.

“The power of the ship therefore dwindled,” LifeNews quoted the crew member, who requested anonymity, as saying. “If the engine worked properly, the ship would have coped with the current and storm and more likely wouldn’t have tilted,” the source said.

The “Bulgaria” was on a weekend tour from Kazan to Bolgar and sank on its way back to the capitol of the Russian republic of Tatarstan.

The 80-meter-long vessel, with capacity for 233 passengers, was capable of traveling at speeds of up to 21 kilometers per hour.