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Five Camp Administrators Detained After Russian Boat Tragedy

  • RFE/RL

Russian authorities have detained five people and closed a holiday camp in the northwestern province of Karelia over what they allege was "criminal negligence" leading to the deaths of at least 14 children after a storm struck during their boat trip.

Most of the victims of the dual capsizing were 12-15 years old. They were among 47 children and four supervisors in three small boats on Lake Syamozero, near Finland, despite weather and wind warnings on June 18.

The tragedy has raised questions about why the Park Hotel Syamozero camp -- which last year hosted children sent by Moscow city authorities as part of a 45 million-ruble ($700,000 at today's exchange rate) contract -- was allowed to operate despite a string of public complaints, which included accusations of sanitary problems and ill-treatment of campers.

A top investigator said that prosecutors made an effort to shut down the camp last year, and investigators were said to be searching Moscow City's department of labor and social welfare in connection with their probe after the latest incident.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said President Vladimir Putin had ordered the Russian Investigative Committee to "find those guilty."

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev criticized the organizers of the boat trip for "criminal and absolutely flagrant negligence."

Investigators said five arrests had already been made, including the camp's director, a deputy director who was on the ill-fated boat trip, and three instructors who led the outing.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

The rescue operation was said to have begun only the following morning, some 18 hours or so after the boats capsized, raising questions about whether the victims all drowned or in some cases died of hypothermia in the frigid conditions. Some national news sites said a 12-year-old survivor who awoke to find herself washed up on the lakeshore was the first to alert emergency services, although that could not immediately be confirmed.

"The children didn't drown, they froze in the water," Andrei Orekhanov, a village authority who helped locate the children, told the Novaya Gazeta newspaper on June 20.

State agencies and news reports have issued conflicting death tolls, with the Emergency Situations Ministry saying 14 children died and the Children's Ombudsman's Office saying 15 young people died.

By June 20, 13 bodies had been recovered and rescuers were still searching for possible victims, local Karelian authorities said.

Day Of Mourning

Officials declared a day of mourning in Moscow and Karelia to remember the victims, most of whom were from the Russian capital.

Investigators in an emotional statement condemned the instructors for failing to rescue the children and instead "saving themselves." Novaya Gazeta reported that at least one of the instructors was under the age of 18.

When the storm rose, the occupants of one of the boats -- a raft -- were able to steer it to an island on the lake, investigators said, but two canoes capsized, forcing those who were able to swim to shore through high, freezing waves.

Several media outlets said 12-year-old camper Yulia Korol washed up on the lakeshore after the incident but lay unconscious until the following day. After she came to, she walked past an injured boy who was unable to move before she continued on to Kudama, a nearby village, to seek help.

Investigators said that the children had asked the instructors not to go on the trip "because there were rumors of a storm warning, but despite this the instructors insisted on going."

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A local radio station quoted Irina, a resident of Kudama, as saying she ran to shore after she heard news of the disaster and saw the bodies of children floating in the water, some of them without life jackets.

Vladimir Puchkov, head of the Emergency Situations Ministry, said on June 20 that the Syamozero camp was being closed and 189 children were being sent home from it immediately.

Sanitation Issues

The camp has been dogged by scandal and criticism, although that does not appear to have prevented it from getting business from Moscow city authorities.

In 2015, a local Karelia resident who sent her daughter to the summer camp told the Karelskaya Guberniya newspaper: "The children slept in cold tents, and 13-year-old girls were forced to make the food on a campfire and wash up the pots. During the rafting, the man in charge shouted at the children, 'Row, bitches,' and smoked right in the boat..."

Investigators said that, in 2011, the camp's deputy director beat a security guard to death on the territory of the camp while under the influence of alcohol.

Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for the Investigative Committee, said prosecutors made an effort to close the camp last year over sanitation issues.

Moscow City had a 43 million-ruble contract with the camp and had purchased 1,478 trips for orphans and children from poor families to Syamozero.

After the tragedy, Vladimir Petrosyan, an official in charge of the city's social-welfare department, told Business FM radio that they had been unaware that the prosecutor tried to shut down the camp. Investigators were reported to be searching the premises of Petrosyan's department in Moscow City Hall in connection with the investigation.