Flags are at half-mast across Russia as the country mourns some 130 victims of a shipwreck after an overloaded pleasure cruiser sank in the Volga River, in the Republic of Tatarstan on Sunday.
The tragedy came as a shock to the nation as 59 people have been officially confirmed dead and around 70 bodies remain trapped underwater – 30 to 40 of them are children.
The total number of people onboard the vessel is now estimated at 208. Nearly 80 were saved.
Rescuers say the chances of finding more survivors are remote.
Tuesday has been announced as an official day of mourning in Russia.
Relatives and friends of the victims have gathered in Tatarstan’s capital Kazan to identify the bodies, while divers from the Emergencies Ministry are working tirelessly to bring the bodies that remain inside the sunken ship to the surface. It requires immense effort because the rapid flow of water at the site of the wreck complicates the operation.
The tragedy sent shockwaves around the country and indeed around the world. On Tuesday, entertainment events have been cancelled nationwide and on major TV channels. There will be a minute of silence at approximately the same time as the wreck occurred.
President Dmitry Medvedev has not only announced a day of mourning but also called for a complete investigation of the incident itself and the whole water transport infrastructure, saying that it is unacceptable that a boat that old – the Bulgaria was built in 1955 – was allowed to travel with passengers onboard.
“The boat leaned a bit; there were three of them in the cabin: my son, my daughter-in-law and my grandson,” says Sanya Zakirova, “My son said he tried to open the cabin door, holding his child, when a wave crashed into them and he lost grip of my grandson. He said he swam towards the light and made it out alive but I can’t find my grandson or daughter-in-law. I can’t find them on any lists. I’m waiting to see photos.”
Now, amidst the grief comes the anger and the questions – why all this happened in the first place.
The Bulgaria pleasure boat sank in just three minutes. Some people are now saying it should never have been on the Volga at all.
Businessman Nikolay Laptev who saw the doomed vessel from onboard a passing ship says that “As the Bulgaria passed us two hours before it looked in awful condition. If they had done a pre-voyage check on the ship before it set off, it would never have been allowed to sail.”
Growing evidence seems to point to gross mismanagement on the vessel, including a broken engine ignored by the captain and blocked emergency exits.
“When I used to work on it, it was called ‘Ukraine’. More and more people complained so they just changed the name to the Bulgaria. The crew themselves always praised God for saving them every time they got off that ship,” claims a former onboard entertainer.
The vessel, built in1955, was given official clearance to sail as recently as last month. Despite this, rescue teams say it was hopelessly outdated.
“The crew told me that before it sank they noticed water coming in through the windows. Taking on water at such a pace, the boat went down very quickly,” said a company representative of the rescue ship.
Now President Medvedev has ordered wide ranging checks, saying there are many more ‘Bulgarias’ out there.
“The number of decrepit barges cruising along our waterways is enormous, and the fact that we were lucky before, doesn’t mean anything like that couldn’t have happened,” Dmitry Medvedev said.
All of this will come to the fore when the ship itself is raised to the surface for investigation.
But it is the harrowing accounts of what happened on the weekend pleasure cruise that tell the real story.
“People were basically buried alive in a giant metal coffin,” said a woman who survived the tragedy, “We managed to get out through the windows. I was there with my ten-year-old daughter. I couldn’t rescue her, she swallowed too much water. When I was pulled out, I realized my child was gone.”
Rescue workers will continue their efforts throughout the coming hours and days. But hopes of finding anyone else alive have now gone, leaving just the shock and grief that so many smiling faces could so quickly disappear beneath the water.