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Russia’s Perfect Storm … of Human Error

July 25th 2011

Russian Topics - volga rescue crew

The rain was light. The winds were moderate, And the waves were only one meter high.

Russia’s mid-July shipping tragedy was a perfect storm—of human error.

The Volga riverboat Bulgaria was designed to carry 140 people, but it was loaded with 208. Most of the 59 children seem to have been waved on board without tickets. Almost two thirds had the same birth date: Dec. 30, 1999.

Launched shortly after Stalin died and last overhauled in 1980, the 56-year-old Bulgaria was no longer licensed to carry passengers. But, oddly, on June 15, a Russian river inspector signed off on its seaworthiness.

One of its two engines, on the port side, was broken. The ship listed to starboard, possibly because all the diesel fuel had been pumped into starboard tanks. At the dock the morning of July 10, some passengers and crew told the captain, Alexander Ostrovsky, that the Bulgaria should not sail.

Out on the Volga, it was a sweltering hot Sunday afternoon for passengers in a vessel constructed before air conditioning. To cool off, passengers and crew opened all the portholes in the low slung river boat. Once in the middle of the Volga, Europe’s largest river, the captain decided to turn his listing boat. A wave caught it broadside. With party music still blasting from loudspeakers, the Bulgaria sank in three minutes. For the next 90 minutes, dozens of survivors floundered in a diesel slick, three kilometers from shore.

Although there were cases of heroism, the captains of two passing cargo boats are now under investigation for not stopping to rescue drowning passengers. Of the passengers, 80 percent of the men, 32 percent of the children, and 26 percent of the women survived. The captain, his wife, and their children drowned.

On July 16, cranes started lifting the cruise ship off the river bottom.

The dark tragedy of the Bulgaria, with 129 dead or missing, evokes the kind of tale one would expect to hear from the upper reaches of the Congo in the 1980s, or the Amazon in the 1990s. Unfortunately, it is now emblematic of transport in post-Soviet Russia. Twenty years ago, when communism collapsed, state owned planes and boats were up for grabs. Their new owners used them, until they sank or crashed. Of the 120 cruise ships now plying the rivers of European Russia, none was launched after 1985, the twilight years of the Soviet Union. The majority, 70 ships, were launched over 40 years ago.

Last year, the Novaya Gazeta newspaper reported that 2,300 sunken boats and barges now dot the bottom of the Volga. About half were scuttled by their owners since 2007. When Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev demanded that “old rust tubs” no longer ply the nation’s waters, Vladimir Varfolomeyev, an editor at Ekho Moskvy radio station, retorted in his blog: “The old tub is our entire state.”

“Poorly controlled, despite the notorious power vertical, it’s thoroughly rotten and therefore allows for operation of these leaky washtubs,” he wrote.

Leaky washtubs on the waters. Flying coffins in the skies.

On July 11, while divers were fishing bodies out of the Bulgaria, an aging Soviet plane flying over Siberia developed engine trouble. At 6,000 meters altitude, the left engine of an Antonov-24 operated by Angara Airlines, burst into flames. The pilot managed to bring it down for a hard belly landing on the Ob River. Seven people died, but 31 survived.

Indeed, Russians now live in a state of aviation segregation. American Boeings or European Airbuses ply most of Russia’s international routes and routes within European Russia. But most flights in Siberia and the Far East are handled with old Soviet-made Antonovs, Yaks, and some Tupolevs. For these far-flung communities, the alternative can literally be: paddle your canoe. Air company managers seem to fly the planes until they crash—and then blame pilot error for crashes. It is simplest and cheapest to blame the dead. So far, about 10 percent of the Antonov 24s have been lost in crashes since production stopped in 1979.

Rotting planes and sinking boats are part of a wider collapse of manufacturing that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, Russia, the world’s largest country, no longer makes the river boats or passenger jets needed to span its vast distances.

James Brooke, VOA’s Moscow bureau chief, wrote this article, which is adapted from the VOA News.

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