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Forty two Burmese nationals were amongst those aboard a ship which sunk in freezing waters off the coast of Russia’s Far East after a fishing boat sank in the Sea of Okhotsk, possibly after a collision.
At least 54 fatalities have been confirmed, with 63 rescued alive and 15 still missing.
Some 132 people were on board the trawler Dalny Vostok when it went down at around 6:30 am on Thursday (2030 GMT on Wednesday), off the coast of Kamchatka. Sixty-three people were rescued alive. Fifteen people were still missing.
Surviving victims were still awaiting evacuation to hospitals after a helicopter failed to pick them up on the first attempt and had to return to base for more fuel, an emergency ministry spokeswoman said.
“Nine people are in a grave condition, some are unconscious and some in a state of shock,” said Tatyana Yukhmanova, spokeswoman for the ministry in the Kamchatka region, which is taking part in the operation.
“Although they were wearing wetsuits, they suffered hypothermia because the water temperature is around zero degrees Celsius,” she told AFP.
She said the rescue efforts would continue until nightfall at which point they would be scaled down with the search continuing with the use of projectors.
Those survivors in the most serious condition were to be taken by a helicopter to Magadan, a city which lies 250 kilometres (150 miles) to the north in the sparsely populated region.
Others were waiting for a large depot ship with an onboard hospital to arrive.
The trawler, a 5,700-ton, 104-metre long factory ship designed to carry several dozen sailors on fishing trips over several months, had a multinational crew.
Russian investigators said it included 78 Russian citizens, 42 Burmese nationals, five from Vanuatu, three Latvians and four Ukrainians, without elaborating on the nationality of those who died.
The bodies would be brought to the port of Korsakov in the Sakhalin region, Russian agencies said, quoting emergency ministry representatives.
The rescue operation involves about 1,300 people on 26 vessels and a helicopter.
“We are taking into account the sea current, all radio location stations are working and the bodies found are being pulled out,” Igor Yeremeyev who heads the emergency operations centre in the Kamchatka region said in televised remarks.
The 1989-built vessel was operated by Magellan, a company based in Nevelsk, a port city on the island of Sakhalin in the Russian Far East.
The Russian Investigative Committee launched a probe into the sinking on grounds of possible violation of safety measures.
Investigators were seizing documentation from the boat owners and were conducting a search of the ship’s home port in Nevelsk as well as the port of Vladivostok from where the ship departed on January 3.
“The investigation plans to question members of the crew and company management shortly,” the committee said in a statement.
“Currently the investigation considers a possible collision with an obstacle damaging the ship’s hull near the machine room as the most likely reason for the ship’s rapid sinking,” it said.
Many fishing vessels trawl the fish-rich seas of the Russian Far East.
The latest accident is the worst in Russia’s recent history. In 2011, 53 people died in the wintertime sinking of the Kolskaya off-shore rig near Sakhalin.