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Russian boat tragedy brings lax regulation, corruption back into spotlight

More than a hundred people, including dozens of children, are feared dead after an aging river boat capsized and rapidly sank Sunday in the middle of the Volga River, Europe’s longest waterway and Russia’s historic main artery.

Public recriminations have already begun over what one expert describes as “a typical Russian tragedy” that is attributable to substandard Soviet-era equipment, a pervasive culture of corruption and indifference that enabled tour operators to ignore even basic safety rules, and the bad luck that the ship was at one of the Volga’s deepest and widest points when it sank.

The double-decked, low-slung passenger boat Bulgaria, built in then-Czechoslovakia in 1955, was reportedly leaning hard to one side and had one damaged engine when it left the Volga port of Bolgary Sunday morning for what was meant to be a “pleasure cruise” up the river to the regional capital of Kazan. According to local officials quoted in the Russian media, there were more than 200 people aboard, including about 60 children, far in excess of the ship’s certified limit of 120 passengers.

The boat keeled over and rapidly sank less than three hours after its departure. It was making a relatively gentle turn at a point where the Volga is nearly 5 miles wide and 65 feet deep. Eyewitnesses said water poured in open portholes on the right side and the ship capsized, dooming most people who were not on deck at the time, including about 30 children who were reportedly locked in a rear cabin for a scheduled children’s party. The boat sank within three minutes.

“When we went down, there were many kids in the play area located in the aft of the boat. They all died. There was a boy who would have turned five years old the next day. His family gathered together to celebrate the occasion. There were many other kids like him on board,” the Moscow daily Komsomolskaya Pravda quoted a survivor as saying.

Russian emergency officials said that 79 people were rescued from the water by another cruise boat, the Arabella, that came on the scene a few minutes later. But according to the online Russian news site, two river freighters passed the sinking vessel without stopping, despite the screams and frantic waving of survivors in the water.

By Monday evening, emergency officials said they had recovered 54 bodies, with more than 50 people still missing. The true number is not known because, according to the practices of riverboat operators, some passengers may have been taken aboard “off the books,” without tickets.

Divers searching the wreck, about 60 feet down, reported many bodies still on board but no likelihood of survivors inside. Rescue workers were still scouring the river banks and dozens of small islelets in the river amid fading hopes of finding any left alive.

President Dmitry Medvedev declared Tuesday a national day of mourning and ordered a criminal investigation into the causes of the accident. He also ordered a full review of Russia’s aging river transport, which includes 1,568 vessels, more than 100 of which are older than the Bulgaria.

“We have enough old tubs floating around,” Mr. Medvedev told a government meeting Monday. “Based on the information we have today, the ship was in an unsuitable condition. We are already in a position to say that the accident would not have happened had the safety requirements been met.”

An accident waiting to happen

Mikhail Kobranov, editor of Rechnoi Transport (River Transport) magazine, says the Bulgaria was a floating accident waiting to happen.

“This was an old ship, with no internal bulkheads to contain flooding from a hull breach. It was terribly overcrowded, probably because it had at least 25 extra passengers who were on board because they’d made a separate arrangement with the captain,” he says.

“In Soviet times there was strict control over these boats, but now any businessman can buy one and start running tours. There are state supervision organs, and they’re supposed to control this, but in practice they seldom get around to checking the small operators. This looks like a case where the company that owned the ship, Agrotechtour, wanted to make money but not invest in the ship. So they left everything to the old Russian attitude of ‘avos’ (which roughly means que sera, sera), and then this happened,” he adds.

Disregard for safety rules

Post-Soviet Russia has been plagued by accidents with a similar profile, combining ruthless profit-seeking with a shocking disregard for safety rules, including a 2009 nightclub fire in the central Russian city of Perm that killed 118 people and a series of deadly coal mine disasters in Siberia.

“The sinking of the Bulgaria is a typically Russian tragedy,” says Alexei Danyayev, an editor with Katera i Yakhty (Boats and Yachts) a Moscow-based trade publication.

“There’s an investigation underway, and we shouldn’t presume what it might discover, but even at this stage it’s obvious that if official organizations had been doing their jobs, accidents like this wouldn’t happen. The practice of paying bribes to get around rules is all-too-often the main factor that explains what would otherwise be inexplicable,” he adds.

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