MOSCOW — The 56-year-old excursion boat that sank in the Russia’s Volga River Sunday, likely killing more than 100 on board, did not have a license to carry passengers, prosecutors said Monday.
The boat also was carrying 79 more people than it was designed for, had a defective engine, and was listing to starboard from the moment it pulled away from its pier, Russian safety officials said.
President Dmitry Medvedev ordered a criminal investigation, “to establish the cause of the tragedy and find those responsible for the incident” and announced a sweeping inspection of public transport in Russia.
“We need a total inspection of all public carriers,” he said, according to the Interfax news agency. “We can see from the information we have that the vessel was not in the appropriate condition.”
The Bulgaria, built in the former Czechoslovakia, sank Sunday afternoon in one of the broadest reaches of the Volga, more than a mile and a half from shore. Passengers said it suddenly heaved over to starboard and went down in less than three minutes, settling on the bottom in about 60 feet of water. Some reports suggested the boat may have been trying to execute a sharp turn to the left, which would make it heel to the right, just before it sank.
At least 80 people were reported saved, including several who swam to the riverbank. But 208 were on board, of whom at least 173 were passengers. About 100 were missing and presumed dead.
The ship was supposed to carry a maximum of 120 people, officials said. The emergencies ministry said there were 25 unregistered passengers on board, and 33 crew members.
“Documents and licenses are very often forged for bribes,” Alexander Sudetsky, a boat mechanic, told the Echo Moskvy radio station. “Of course, Bulgaria was old, but if its technical condition complied with the existing rules then it could be used as a cruise boat and transport passengers.”
But the boat’s technical condition was reportedly compromised. One of the two engines was out of order, and passengers on earlier trips said Monday that they had been alarmed by leaking portholes. Officials said they think the portholes on the boat’s lowest deck may have been open when it leaned over, allowing the river water to pour in. There were no watertight compartments dividing the hull.
The announcement by the prosecutor’s office that the boat lacked a license also suggests that someone had cut corners, which the company that charters the boat denied.
“The vessel was all right,” Svetlana Imyakina, director of the chartering company, told the Interfax news agency. “Everything was all right, judging by the registration certificate, and the vessel was in good technical condition.”
The Bulgaria was on a trip from Bulgar, a historic site in the Russian republic of Tatarstan, to Kazan, the republic’s capital. Shortly before it went down, about 50 children who were on board had been gathered together in a room for a special children’s program. All apparently died.
Divers reached the site of the wreck Sunday night. They said the Bulgaria was lying on its right side. They tapped on the hull to see if there was a response from any people who might have been able to survive in an air pocket. But there was none. After shining lights through the portholes Monday they reported that they could see bodies in several of the ship’s public rooms.
Medvedev declared that Tuesday would be a day of mourning throughout Russia.