About 79 people have survived the ordeal, thanks mostly to the prompt intervention of the ‘Arabella’, a ship that was navigating in the area where the Bulgaria went down.
The tragedy, the worst sea disaster in post-Communist Russia, occurred in the Republic of Tatarstan, in the early afternoon of Sunday. The twin-deck boat suddenly tilted starboard (right), and sank in a few minutes, taking passengers and crew down to a depth of about 20 metres. About a thousand rescue workers, including 195 divers, are involved in the recovery operation.
It is still unclear what caused the ship to sink, but Russian authorities have already made their first arrests, including the owner of the ‘Bulgaria’s operator, Svetlana Inyakina.
For the Russian media, the sinking was due to the operator’s “incredible greed”. Some papers are saying that the commander of the old ship (built in 1955) had to pay for its maintenance because Inyakina, the head of AgroRechTur, the company that operated the ship, refused to pay for even the most elementary things like keys, uniforms and meals. If convicted, she could get up to 10 years in prison.
So far, the disaster has not had any negative impact on the local tourist industry. Volga cruises remain very popular with Russians and travel agencies have not reported cancellations, this according to Maya Lomidze, director of the Association of Tour Operators of Russia.
In the meantime, the Kremlin has launched a large-scale probe of the country’s passenger ships. Of the 120 river cruise ships currently operating in European Russia, 50 are 25 to 30 years old and the other 70 are older than 40 years, the Association said in a statement. In addition, about 100 of Russia's 1,500 river vessels were built before 1956, the Transportation Ministry said.
"There is not a single new river boat in use today," Yuri Gorbachev, general designer at the Shipbuilding Engineering Centre in St Petersburg, said.
However, even 60-year-old ships like the Bulgaria can be safe if maintained properly, said Valentin Razhivin, a former ship captain.
The problem is that the river fleet is almost exclusively in private hands, and the state has all but ignored it, said Vladimir Klimenko, who sits on the State Duma's Transportation Committee.