(New York Times) -- MOSCOW — More than 100 people, including
many children, drowned when a riverboat filled with families
cruising the Volga River sank over the weekend, rescue officials
said on Monday, conceding little hope remained of finding
Tragically, minutes before the boat went down, the crew had
separated many of the children on board from their parents,
moving them into an interior play area, apparently part of the
normal routine of the cruise.
But on this day it had terrifying consequences in what
authorities are calling the worst river transport disaster in
Russia in recent history and one of the most dismal losses of
life among children in this country since terrorists seized a
school in a southern region seven years ago.
Authorities now say as many as 197 people were on board when
the boat sank on Sunday, including at least 59 children. In the
chaotic hours, about 80 people were rescued from the water, most
of them adults.
Accounts provided to Russian media by survivors and rescue
officials painted a picture of tragedy that struck in a manner
that disproportionately saved adults on the decks, but left
little chance of escape for children in the enclosed play area.
On Monday, the first divers to examine the wreck at the
bottom of the river said more than 100 bodies were inside. By
midday Monday, authorities said 12 bodies had been brought to the
Russian authorities also suggested a cause of the accident.
The Investigative Committee, which is examining possible criminal
misconduct, said the 56-year-old riverboat had mechanical
troubles in one of two diesel engines. Survivors said the boat
was listing even at port, which Russian maritime experts said
that was possibly because a sewage tank was overfull.
Authorities also revealed that more people than first
reported were on the boat, as the passenger manifest had been
filled out haphazardly.
On the second day of the cruise on Sunday, after lunch, the
children were gathered in an indoor play room for afternoon games
with babysitters working for the tour company. The fate of the
babysitters is still unclear, though it is likely they also went
down with the ship a few minutes before 2 p.m., while many of the
The Interfax news agency quoted one survivor saying at least
30 children were in the room. The parents went out on deck, or
relaxed in their cabins, survivors said.
At this time, Captain Aleksandr Ostrovsky — whose own family
happened to be aboard that day — was attempting to turn the
tilting, underpowered boat in the increasingly choppy water of a
dammed portion of the Volga River that forms a broad lake, called
the Kuybyshev Reservoir.
As he turned, he exposed the boat’s length to waves, life.ru
One washed over the deck, sweeping some of the adults into
the water, and the boat tilted.
“It just tipped to the right, flipped over, and sank,”
Nikolai Chernov, one of the survivors, told Russian television.
“That was it,” he said. “There was no warning, nothing.”
River cruises are a beloved summer pastime for Russians, who
sometimes book rides through the country’s vast inland waterways
that last for weeks. Sleeping cabins are common, as are
restaurants and onboard discos.
The Volga River is crowded with boats in the summertime,
including oil tankers and barges. Last year, a riverboat collided
with a barge laden with sand north of Moscow. Then, all the
passengers were rescued.
The boat that sank on Sunday, called the Bulgaria, was a
vintage 1955 riverboat with two decks, elegant brass fixtures and
a ballroom, according to archival pictures shown on NTV
Large-scale accidents have sometimes led to anger at the
government, especially when the country’s somewhat cavalier
approach to safety has played a role. President Dmitri A.
Medvedev spoke with rescue officials on Sunday afternoon, state
Witnesses told Russian television that it was raining at the
time of the sinking, but not particularly stormy, making it
unclear whether a misjudgment about the weather was to blame.
Television images showed choppy water and an overcast sky.
Another Volga River tour boat, the Arabella, which was the
first to arrive at the scene, found people clinging to debris and
life vests, and pulled about 80 survivors from the water.
In the confusion that followed the episode, the numbers on
board and missing varied throughout the day, and were still
An emergency situations ministry official told the RIA news
agency that of 59 children on board, 36 were listed as having the
same birthday, December 30, 1999 — more likely indicating
sloppiness in filing out the form than coincidence, and rendering
it difficult now to know how many children are still missing.
Most of those who survived were on the decks, the Life.ru, a
news web site reported.
Some were swept into the water, while others were able to
Some of those who were indoors escaped after harrowing
ordeals. Among the survivors picked up by the Arabella were two
dozens with lacerations and broken bones — caused by breaking the
windows on their cabins and squeezing through, as the boat filled
Even out of the boat, the difficulties continued.
Mr. Chernov, the passenger who described the sinking as
swift and without warning, said survivors spent an hour and a
half in the water before being picked up.
During that time, two cargo barges passed without stopping,
he said, while another survivor told Russia Today television
station that passengers on one passing boat were taking cellphone
videos of the people in the water.
Russian television later showed footage of survivors shaking
with grief, yelling or staring hollowly at the port in Kazan
where they were brought.
In one, a woman yells “My granddaughter, she was only five
“People were basically buried alive as if in a metal
sarcophagus,” one survivor told Russian Today. “We managed to get
out through the windows. I was there with my ten-year-old
daughter. I could not rescue her, she swallowed too much water.
When I was pulled out, I realized my child was gone.”
The name of the captain, Mr. Ostrovsky, was not among the
list of rescued, and neither were the names of his wife and
children whom he had brought along on the trip, Life.ru reported.