A riverboat filled with families cruising on the Volga River sank on Sunday, and about 100 people were missing hours later, feeding fears that the episode could be the country’s worst such accident in recent history.
The riverboat, called the Bulgaria, had set out with 188 people on board for a cruise in the Kuybyshev Reservoir, a reach of the upper Volga that is dammed and forms a broad lake, according to state television.
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 82 survivors from the water and one woman who had drowned, Russian television reported.
Initially, a local official in the Ministry of Emergency Situations said that aside from one woman who drowned, other vessels had picked up the remainder of the passengers and crew. But later Sunday, officials at the ministry’s headquarters in Moscow said 97 people were still missing after helicopters and motorboats had searched the river for hours. A plane with divers later took off from Moscow, suggesting a search for bodies rather than survivors.
In the confusion that followed the episode, the numbers on board and missing varied throughout the day.
The cause of the sinking was not yet clear. 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 television reported.
The tour company operating the Bulgaria had recently canceled trips because of mechanical troubles on the boat, and passengers from a previous outing had complained on a local Web site that the engines had broken down during their cruise.
The Bulgaria is a vintage 1955 riverboat with two decks, elegant brass fixtures and a ballroom, according to archival pictures shown on NTV television news.
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 boats often stop at uninhabited islands in the river so passengers can disembark and swim.
The Bulgaria sank about two miles from shore. Crews were searching nearby islands and the bank. Witnesses told Russian television that it was raining at the time of the sinking, but not particularly stormy. Television images showed choppy water and an overcast sky.
Interfax cited an unidentified survivor who went ashore when the Arabella docked in Kazan as saying that the boat was carrying many children, and that about 30 of them were gathered in an inside play room when the boat sank. “I’m afraid many of them died,” the survivor was quoted as saying.
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.
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