Russia Mourns Cruise Ship Deaths; Search Continues

By ANDREY BULAY and JIM HEINTZ | July 13, 2011

A criminal negligence investigation was opened on Tuesday into the sinking of a cruise vessel on the Volga River that killed scores of people, and two ships that allegedly sailed past the tragedy without bothering to help.

The confirmed death toll from Sunday’s sinking of the cruise vessel on the Volga River stood at 88, but more than 41 people remained missing and hopes for finding any alive were fading.

Boats on the waterway sounded their horns at noon Tuesday to mourn the victims, many of whom were children.

The 55-year-old double-decker boat, the Bulgaria, was overloaded when it sank, but it wasn’t clear to what degree. The Investigative Committee said Tuesday there were 192 people when it sank, dozens more than it was licensed to carry. The Emergencies Ministry said the boat had more than 200 on board. The discrepancy couldn’t immediately be explained. But whether the overloading was a factor in the sinking remains undetermined.

Investigators say survivors report that the boat was listing to starboard and having engine trouble even as it left the town of Bulgar en route to Kazan, about 750 kilometers (450 miles) east of Moscow.

Russia’s Investigative Committee announced Tuesday that the director of the tour agency that operated the Bulgaria and an official of the agency that registers river vessels had been detained and that a criminal case has been opened against them on charges that carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

The committee opened a separate case against the captains of two ships that reportedly passed by at the time of the sinking but did not stop to offer help, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

President Dmitry Medvedev declared Tuesday a national day of mourning for the disaster. Flagstaffs were hung with black ribbons, vessels on the Volga blew their horns and dropped wreaths into the waters, and officials made somber statements.

“It is especially bitter and hard because there were so many children. It is our future and the memory of them should be kept with every one of us,” Transport Minister Igor Levitin said at a memorial service in Kazan.

But such sentiments sounded disingenuous to many Russians.

Moscow resident Igor Kondratyev, asked who he thought bore the blame for the sinking, said: “The transport chiefs of the country, who else? They don’t do anything at all. Everything is the same as it was a long time ago … one should build new, not use the old.”

Of Russia’s more than 1,500 passenger vessels, more than 100 are as old or older than the sunken vessel, according to the Transportation Ministry.

Medvedev has ordered a full inspection of the country’s passenger fleet.

Divers continued to search the wreckage at a depth of about 20 meters (65 feet) Tuesday. News reports said they were approaching what is likely to be one of the most heart-wrenching parts of the operation, searching the entertainment hall of the vessel where survivors said some 50 children had gathered shortly before the Bulgaria sank.

“I think that is the terrible moment everyone is waiting for. Some with horror, someone with hope,” said Kazan resident Lyubov Gordeyeva.

Associated Press writer in Moscow contributed to this story.

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