Doors may have been locked shut as cruise ship sank in storm


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Rescue divers spent yesterday pulling corpses out of Russia's Volga river, as the devastating size of the death toll from Sunday's cruise boat sinking gradually became apparent.

More than 100 people, many of them children, are feared dead after the Bulgaria sank in stormy weather while on a two-day cruise from the city of Kazan. Around 80 people were rescued by a passing boat in the immediate aftermath, but hopes have faded for the remaining missing.

The number of confirmed dead rose throughout the day, as divers undertook the grim task of searching for bodies inside the sunken ship itself, lodged on the riverbed. By the afternoon, the confirmed death toll was at 53, but rescuers admitted they had little hope of finding anyone still missing alive and that the final toll was likely to top 100.

There were reports that shortly before disaster struck, dozens of children gathered in a playroom with an onboard entertainer, to give their parents some quiet time. It is not known how many of the children, if any, survived.

Evidence suggested that a number of safety violations could have caused or compounded the disaster. One survivor told the website LifeNews that emergency exit doors on the boat had been sealed or locked shut. Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu said yesterday that 208 people were believed to be aboard the Bulgaria at the time it sank, while the boat was intended to hold only 120. Investigators also suggested that the boat set sail with a palpable right-hand tilt, and with one of its engines not properly functioning.

Some survivors told Russian news agencies that they begged the captain to turn round because of the tilt, but were ignored. The boat was made in 1955 and had not undergone any serious modernisation work. There were conflicting reports about whether it was properly licensed for passenger cruises.

Cruises on Russia's rivers are a popular summer holiday option for Russians who are not able to afford international travel, and every summer hundreds of boats ply the Volga, Europe's longest river. Survivors say that during the cruise, the Bulgaria got caught up in stormy weather, and tilted sharply to the right. This was apparently compounded by the captain trying to turn the boat round, and soon water was rushing into the vessel through portholes that had been opened because the ship had no air conditioning. The boat sank within a matter of minutes, plunging down nearly 20 metres to the river bed, in a spot around two miles from the nearest bank.

Gruesome video footage showed that some of the bodies dragged to the surface were wearing life jackets, but even this failed to save them. Some witnesses suggested that two other boats in the vicinity at the time of the tragedy simply sailed past without stopping to offer help.