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37 missing as Russian oil rig sinks

Published time: December 18, 2011 14:11
Edited time: December 19, 2011 11:07

Drilling rig overturns in the Sea of Okhotsk

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Rescuers have saved 14 of the 67 people who were on board a floating oil rig which capsized in the Sea of Okhotsk in Russia’s Far East, according to latest reports.

Nine more dead bodies have been found in the freezing waters off Russia's Far East coast, where an oil rig capsized.

It brings the death toll to 16, with 37 still missing, more than a day after the tragedy happened.

The Kolskaya rig was being towed by an icebreaker and a tow boat to Sakhalin Island after finishing its drill mission when the disaster happened. A distress signal was sent from it on Sunday morning.

The rescuers have already found three lifeboats – all of them were empty. The chances of survival of those missing are now close to zero because these lifeboats were their only chance for survival in the freezing waters. The temperature on Sakhalin Island at present is -20 C.

“It means that the crew was not able to get down in the lifeboats. The boats were washed away with the flow of the water,” said the rescue operation co-ordinator, Veniamin Ivanychev.

Still, one lifeboat remains unaccounted for by search and rescue teams and it could potentially be found with survivors on board.

“A rescue An-74 aircraft continues a reconnaissance mission in the area of the disaster. Rescue helicopters patrolling the area have all the necessary equipment to pick up any survivors. Three ships continue to operate in the area where the oil rig sank,” Aleksandr Ivelsky, an Emergency Ministry spokesman, told RT.

The four rescued people were transported to land via helicopter for further treatment. All of them suffered exposure to cold, but have no other injuries, medics said.

Rescuers had problems with lifting the dead bodies from the water and had to leave them floating in the sea until the storm, which sank the rig, calmed down a little. It is feared that none of the missing people will be found alive now.

The rescue operation continuув despite night having fallen.

Two helicopters deployed at the scene have also interrupted operations until the morning.

All workers at the rig were equipped with warm, dry suits and life vests, rescuers say.

“All those rescued were wearing diving suits. Every single one of the rig's crew was wearing a diving suit. They should have kept them afloat in these icy waters,” said Emergencies Ministry specialist, Sergey Petrovsky.

Initially the search was conducted by the two vessels which were towing the rig, and a helicopter. However the tow boat Neftegaz-55 started to leak near the engine room closer to the evening and had to withdraw from the location, as the ship’s water pumps were failing to deal with the leak. Later the Transport Ministry reported that the leak was covered and does not pose much danger to the ship anymore.

The rig itself has completely sunk. Authorities said it had little fuel left and those supplies were in sealed tanks, so the environmental damage to the region will be minimal, if any.

The incident happened 200 kilometers off Sakhalin Island. Conditions at sea have been very severe lately, with waves up to six meters high and winds of 70 kilometers per hour in the area. A storm caused the rig to tip over. It damaged two of its air tanks, which gave buoyancy to the platform. This tilted it and it capsized in a roughly 20 minutes.

This happened as helicopters were preparing to evacuate 53 crew members and 14 passengers from it, because staying aboard was deemed too risky in such conditions.

Investigators say the most likely cause of the disaster was violation of safety regulations for transportation of the rig in stormy weather. They are planning to interview the survivors as soon as possible to find out the details of the accident.

The Kolskaya rig was built in 1985. At 70 meters long and 80 wide, it was one of the largest oil rigs in Russia. It was due to set sail for drilling off the Vietnamese coast at the end of its current mission.

The rig incident is the second high-profile maritime disaster in Russia this year. In July, the pleasure boat Bulgaria sank during a cruise on the Volga River in a storm. Of the 201 people onboard, 122 died when the ship went down in a matter of minutes. Investigators blamed negligence and violation of safety rules for that incident.

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