SYUKEYEVO, Russia (Reuters) - Russia said there was little hope of finding any more people alive on Monday after an overloaded tourist boat sank in the Volga River, killing 128 people in Russia’s worst river accident in three decades.
Eighty people were rescued on Sunday after the Bulgaria, a double-decked river cruiser built in 1955, sank 3 km (2 miles)from shore in a broad stretch of the river in Tatarstan.
Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu told President Dmitry Medvedev that little hope remained of finding survivors.
Sixty of the passengers may have been children, Russian media reported, and survivors said 30 children had gathered in a room near the stern of the ship to play just minutes before it sank.
“Practically no children made it out,” survivor Natalya Makarova said on state television. She said she had lost her grip on her 10-year-old daughter as they struggled to escape.
“We were all buried alive in the boat like in a metal coffin,” Makarova said, who escaped through a window.
Sania Zakirova waited anxiously on the shore at Syukeyevo for news of her missing grandson and pregnant daughter-in-law.
“No one is telling us anything. Are they alive or dead?” she screamed, wiping back tears. Her son, who survived, “was struck by a big wave that carried his son straight out of his hands,” the Kazan resident told reporters.
Russia has a history of disasters and deadly accidents stemming from lax implementation of safety rules, from fires to plane crashes and mining disasters.
Another relative told regional official Grigory Rapota: “You cannot bring the children back! But find their bodies. I don’t want money from you, I want to take them into my hands and bury them in peace.”
Transport Minister Igor Levitin said the captains of two passing ships — who according to survivors had not helped them while sinking — faced “the most severe punishment,” state-run RIA news agency reported.
He also banned such vessels, of which Russia has 18, from operating.
Cruises on the Volga, which cuts through the heart of Russia hundreds of kilometres east of Moscow and drains into the Caspian Sea, are popular among Russians and foreigners.
Mikhail Korbanov, the editor of Russia’s River Transport magazine, said the sinking was the most deadly river accident since the Alexander Suvorov crashed into a railroad bridge on the Volga in 1983, killing at least 176 people.
Medvedev said the sinking would not have happened if safety rules had been observed.
“According to the information we have today, the vessel was in poor condition,” Medvedev told a hastily convened meeting of senior ministers at his Gorki residence outside Moscow. “Then umber of old rust tubs which we have sailing is exorbitant.”
Seeking to deflect possible criticism of the authorities ahead of the March presidential election, he called for a “total examination” of passenger transport vehicles in Russia.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sent his condolences and a day of mourning was declared in Russia on Tuesday.
The regional Emergencies Ministry said they had brought 58 bodies to the surface, five of whom were children, but divers said they had seen more bodies trapped in the restaurant cabin of the Bulgaria, a 78-metre craft the ministry said was designed for up to 140 passengers.
The boat, which was built in Communist Czechoslovakia, had 208 people on board including 25 unregistered passengers, Shoigu said.
A spokeswoman for the Prosecutor General said the Bulgaria was overloaded, had no licence to carry passengers and a problem with its left engine when it sailed out in a storm. State TV said it had never undergone major repairs.
The Federal Investigative Committee said it had confiscated documents from the company that owned the boat. Spokesman Vladimir Markin said investigators were looking into why the boat was listing to the right when it set out.
At least five people were killed and 30 injured when a Russian plane made an emergency landing on a Siberian river after an engine caught fire on Monday.