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Ghosts Of Russia's 'Kursk' Disaster Haunt Dam Accident

  • Lyubov Chizhova
  • Brian Whitmore

Russian rescue workers continue to search for survivors at the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric power plant.

Russian rescue workers continue to search for survivors at the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric power plant.

Pressure is mounting on the Russian authorities over their handling of the search-and-rescue effort at the stricken Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric power station.

A massive blast at the station in southern Siberia on August 17 blew out the plant's walls and caused the turbine room to flood. As of the morning of August 20, 17 workers were confirmed dead and 58 are still missing.

Relatives of missing workers have demanded the authorities tell the truth about the accident and have raised questions about the rescue effort.

Now, a journalist who sounded the alarm that there might be survivors still trapped inside Russia's largest power station has been arrested.

Russian media are reporting that Mikhail Afanasyev, editor in chief of the online newspaper "Novy fokus," is being held by police in the city of Abakan. He has been charged with "criminal libel" for allegedly making defamatory statements about the plant’s management and the rescue effort.

Shortly before being detained, Afanasyev told RFE/RL's Russian Service that there is evidence that there are indeed survivors trapped in rooms below the water level at the Sayano-Shushenskaya power station -- and that time is running out to rescue them.

"According to information from relatives and those working at the station, there are survivors," Afanasyev said. "As late as yesterday evening [August 18], until late at night, they could be heard knocking. I have been summoned to the prosecutor's office and asked for an explanation."

Relatives of workers who may still be trapped underwater at the station have criticized local officials.
Afanasyev was also among the signatories of an e-mail circulating this week that accused the authorities of "concealing information" about the disaster. "Some media have come to our aid..., but this is not enough," the e-mail read. "Let us do everything to save lives."

The authorities say divers continue to search for survivors in the icy water that flooded the plant, but officials say there is little hope of finding anyone alive.

Memories Of The 'Kursk'

The specter of trapped survivors desperately knocking amid a race against time to rescue them is reminiscent of the August 2000 "Kursk" disaster. The "Kursk" submarine sank in the Barents Sea after a mysterious explosion, killing all 118 crew members.

After the "Kursk" sank, survivors were widely believed to by trying to communicate with rescuers by knocking on the submarine's hull.

The "Kursk" disaster was a major political setback for then-President Vladimir Putin, just months after he was elected. As rescue efforts were going on, he was filmed with his sleeves rolled up and hosting a barbecue at a Black Sea villa.

Some signs are emerging that the Sayano-Shushenskaya explosion could have political fallout for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and for Putin, now the prime minister.

Thus far, however, the anger from relatives of the dead and missing has been focused on local authorities.

'Doing Everything Possible'

At a meeting with regional Governor Viktor Zimin on August 19, relatives of missing workers accused the plant's management and the state of putting profits above safety.

The plant's turbines had not been overhauled since Soviet times.
Shortly after the disaster on August 17, Medvedev said, "the heads of relevant ministries and departments should be aware that they will be held personally responsible for ensuring that measures be taken quickly to overcome this difficult situation and to prevent similar accidents from occurring in the future."

Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu and Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko are on the scene of the disaster in Russia's Khakasia region.

"The situation is not only extraordinary, but it is unique," Shmatko told reporters. "This is the biggest and most mysterious accident that the world's hydroenergy field has seen. We do not understand the nature of the explosion that took off the turbine's 800-ton lid. [The investigation] requires the work of very good experts."

Shoigu told reporters that the authorities are using all means at their disposal to locate any survivors. "We have checked everywhere including elevator shafts, the elevators themselves, staircases," he said. "Moreover, we are using listening devices to pick up sounds through the ventilation system."

The Sayano-Shushenskaya power station was considered state of the art when in was built in 1978, but its turbines have not been overhauled since Soviet times. Officials had raised safety concerns in the 1990s and the plant's director said this week that the plant's creaky turbines may have caused the accident.

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report

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