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Passenger On Rescue Boat Recounts Volga River Tragedy

Relatives of passengers believed to be aboard the ill-fated "Bulgaria" cruise ship await fresh information near a dock in Kazan.
KAZAN -- Nurbek Batulla and dozens of travelers had been waiting for hours in the Volga River port city of Bulgar when their boat, the "Meteor," finally pulled in toward the dock.

The impatient crowd, eager to travel north to the Tatar capital, Kazan, might have been ready to share a few sharp words with the crew for making them wait so long.

But they quickly fell silent when they realized what was behind the delay -- the boat had encountered a shipwreck downriver and had three traumatized survivors on board.

Nurbak Batulla (undated)
Batulla and his fellow passengers were soon to learn that the boat that had sunk was the "Bulgaria," a river cruise vessel that had tipped on its side in stormy weather and disappeared beneath the water's surface within minutes -- apparently trapping more than 100 passengers, including dozens of children, inside.

"There were three people on our smaller boat: two middle-aged men and a boy who was 7 or 8. The paramedics gave [the boy] a sedative to help him sleep after he told them his name and said that his mother and brother were on the 'Bulgaria,'" Batulla said. "The two men were also in a state of shock and couldn't really speak normally. One of them was hysterical, just repeating over and over that his family was [on the "Bulgaria"]. The sailors on our boat tried to calm him down, saying that they had heard the 'Arabella' had rescued about 80 people and that his relatives would probably be among them."

It is unclear whether the "Meteor," a small boat with a capacity of just 40 people, had passed the site before or after the "Arabella" had rescued the bulk of the survivors.

Batulla, a 24-year-old dancer with the Kazan State Opera and Ballet theater, said the crew on board the "Meteor" was familiar with the "Bulgaria" and described it as having been in a state of disrepair.

"What I heard from the sailors of our boat was that the 'Bulgaria' was really in very bad condition," Batulla said. "They said it was dangerously old."

In the wake of the tragedy, attention has focused on the condition of the "Bulgaria," which was built in 1955 in what was then Czechoslovakia.

The boat's operators have defended the boat's condition as seaworthy, arguing that powerful winds and two-meter-high waves that had caused the boat to sink. But Batulla said the "Meteor" crew suggested the weather, while inclement, was not severe enough to sink an otherwise solid vessel.

"When they passed by the site of the tragedy the weather was getting worse. It had started to rain," Batulla quoted. "But the waves weren't so bad that it was enough to sink a boat of that size."

Batulla expressed amazement that emergency vessels arrived at the scene only hours after the accident, and that it was slow-moving tour boats like the "Meteor" and the "Arabella" that were called on to rescue the survivors.

"We're shocked that only tourist boats were there to rescue the 'Bulgaria' passengers," Batulla said. "Couldn't they have sent some special high-speed boats to rescue them? After the tragedy, our boat -- which moves at a very slow speed -- took us to Kazan and then went back to the place where the 'Bulgaria' sank. It took hours to get there. Plus, tourist boats aren't equipped to provide medical help or carry out rescue operations."

written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar from reporting by Raynur Shakir in Kazan