Russia mourns cruise ship deaths; search continues

By ANDREY BULAY | July 12, 2011 | 7:14 AM EDT

People throw flowers into the port of Kazan, Russia, Tuesday, July 12, 2011, on the Volga River, in central Russia. Russia is observing a day of mourning for victims of a cruise ship sinking as divers work deep underwater in a Volga River reservoir to try to find more bodies. The 55-year-old double-decker boat was carrying 208 people when it sank Sunday, a load about 75 percent more than it was licensed to carry. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze)

KAZAN, Russia (AP) — Boats in the Volga River blew a long and melancholy blast on their horns at noon Tuesday in a sign of mourning for the victims of a cruise vessel that sank while crowded with holiday-makers.

The confirmed death toll from Sunday's sinking of the ship stands at 63, but more than 60 people remain missing and hopes for finding any alive have shrunk to almost nil.

The 55-year-old double-decker boat, the Bulgaria, was carrying 208 people when it sank, a load of about 75 percent more than it was licensed to carry. But whether the overloading was a factor in the sinking remains undetermined. Investigators say survivors report that the boat was listing to starboard and having engine trouble even as it left the town of Bulgar en route to Kazan, about 750 kilometers (450 miles) east of Moscow.

President Dmitry Medvedev declared Tuesday a national day of mourning for the disaster. Flagstaffs were hung with black ribbons, vessels on the Volga blew their horns and dropped wreaths into the waters and officials made somber statements.

"It is especially bitter and hard because there were so many children. It is our future and the memory of them should be kept with every one of us," Transport Minister Igor Levitin said at a memorial service in Kazan.

But such sentiments sounded disingenuous to many Russians.

Moscow resident Igor Kondratyev, asked who he thought bore the blame for the sinking, said "The transport chiefs of the country, who else? They don't do anything at all. Everything is the same as it was a long time ago ... one should build new, not use the old."

Of Russia's more than 1,500 passenger vessels, more than 100 are as old or older than the sunken vessel, according to the Transportation Ministry.

Medvedev has ordered a full inspection of the country's passenger fleet.

Divers continued to search the wreckage at a depth of about 20 meters (65 feet) Tuesday. News reports said they were approaching what is likely to be one of the most heart-wrenching parts of the operation, searching the entertainment hall of the vessel where survivors said some 50 children had gathered shortly before the Bulgaria sank.

"I think that is the terrible moment everyone is waiting for. Some with horror, someone with hope," said Kazan resident Lyubov Gordeyeva.


Associated Press writer Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this story.