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Storm wrecks ships in Black Sea - two dead, many missing

A storm in the Black and Azov Seas is reported to have sunk five ships. Many more have run aground or are in distress. One oil tanker has split in half, spilling 1,000 tonnes of fuel into the water. Two sailors are confirmed dead, with at least 20 others

Emergency teams are battling storm-force winds and high seas as they search for missing sailors.  A spokesman for the Federal Agency for Sea & Inland Water Transport, Aleksandr Davydenko, said the situation in the Kerch Strait is getting worse.

“Now the waves are six metres high and the wind is gusting to 35 metres per second,” Davydenko said.

The Black Sea region
The Black Sea region

Two cargo ships, each containing more than 2,000 tonnes of sulphur, have also sunk. Another cargo ship is in distress.

The “Volganeft-139” oil tanker has split in half, spilling more than a thousand tonnes of fuel oil into the sea. Another tanker is cracked, but has so far managed to contain all its oil.

Emergencies Ministry’s spokesman Viktor Beltsov says the “Volganeft-139” is now anchored and drifting in the area close to the port of Kavkaz.

“At the moment specialists are trying to work out the size of the oil spill and the direction it's heading. We will alert the respective Ukrainian services if the spill moves in their direction,” Beltsov said.

“As for the sulphur transported on the cargo ships: our ecologists are now studying the effects it might have on the environment,” he said.

In another area of the Black Sea close to the city of Sevastopol, the storm wrecked a freighter carrying scrap metal. Two of its crew have been found alive, but fifteen others are missing.

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

According to reports, several more dry-cargo ships have run aground due to strong winds. Among them are Turkish vessels as well as one Georgian and one Greek ship.

Ecological concerns

Meanwhile, local transport official Elena Velikova says sea specialists are trying to measure the scale of the problem.

“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.

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

“My forecast is that the coastline of the Kerch Strait and the strait itself will need deep re-cultivation. All possible efforts will need to be made to remove as much of those oil-containing liquids as possible, since the oil that's been spilt could create long-term problems lasting 10 to 15 years. So as soon as the storm is over, we'll get all necessary services, including special laboratories working to draw up a plan of action to minimise the consequences,” he said.

Storms cause power cuts in Crimea
Storms cause power cuts in Crimea

Storm damage

Meanwhile, authorities in 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.