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Russian boat tragedy brings lax regulation, corruption back into spotlight

At least 54 people died when the river boat Bulgaria sank Sunday due to a combination of poor Soviet-era equipment, a culture of corruption that undermined safety rules, and unfortunate timing.

By Correspondent / July 11, 2011

A diver from the Russian Emergencies Ministry climbs up to a rescue vessel during an operation to search for victims of the tourist boat "Bulgaria", which sank on the Volga river, in Russia's Tatarstan region in this still image taken from video footage July 11.

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Moscow

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.

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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 Life.ru, 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.

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