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Soviets Fear 398 Died in Black Sea Collision : Most of Missing Believed Lost With Liner; Warnings Ignored by Freighter, Officials Say

September 03, 1986|WILLIAM J. EATON | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Nearly 400 people are dead or missing after a Soviet passenger liner sank in the Black Sea when it was rammed by a freighter that had ignored repeated calls to change course, the government disclosed Tuesday.

Leonid P. Nedyak, deputy minister of the Ministry of the Maritime Fleet, said at a news conference that 79 people died in the Sunday night collision and 319 people are missing and feared dead. Twenty-nine of the survivors have been hospitalized.

The German-built 17,503-ton Admiral Nakhimov was carrying 888 passengers and 346 crew members when it went down. Among the rescued were 234 crew members.

The last person saved was pulled from the water on Monday afternoon, Nedyak said, indicating that most of the missing went down with the ship.

'Only a Supposition'

Asked whether any of the missing might have survived, Nedyak was unusually blunt. "I believe most of the missing passengers are still aboard the ship, but until the divers reach them this is only a supposition," he said.

There were no foreigners aboard the liner carrying Soviet tourists on a summer cruise of the Black Sea, a popular tourist area. No one on the freighter, the Japanese-built 18,604-ton Pyotr Vasev, was hurt. The freighter, loaded with grain, would have a total displacement of 32,961 tons when carrying a full cargo, stores and crew.

A government commission is investigating the tragedy, the worst such peacetime disaster in Soviet maritime history, officials said.

Liner Hit Amidships

Nedyak said the Admiral Nakhimov was hit amidships, between the engine and the boiler room, by the freighter at 11:15 p.m. Sunday, 45 minutes after the liner left the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk.

"Practically speaking, the blow ripped the liner open and broke it in two," he added.

The liner sank within 15 minutes in about 142 feet of water, seven miles from port, Nedyak said. There was no explosion.

The liner sank so quickly that there was no time to lower the lifeboats, he said. Some of the survivors scrambled into inflatable life rafts and were saved by small craft and helicopters from Novorossiysk.

The liner was hit on the starboard side as it moved slowly out to sea at a speed of seven nautical miles per hour, Nedyak told reporters.

He said some 50 Black Sea navy vessels and civil aviation planes are still involved in the rescue mission, which began "almost immediately" after the accident Sunday night.

Two Warnings Unheeded

The helmsman of the Admiral Nakhimov was quoted Tuesday as saying that the freighter failed to heed two warnings that it was on a collision course.

"We saw this other ship from far away" as the liner left port, Seaman A. Chudnovsky told Izvestia, the official government newspaper. Crew members took its bearing and realized the cargo ship was on a collision course, he said.

Officers on the liner contacted the freighter by radio and were assured that it would change course, the helmsman said. "Don't worry; we shall steer clear of each other," was the answer from the freighter.

"In several minutes, we repeated the call since the freighter continued its course," he said, according to the Izvestia account.

"We were very nervous because the other ship was so close," he said.

The helmsman continued: "I saw how this ship crashed into our side. It went astern and tried to back off but it was too late."

Izvestia said, "This tragedy once again sets one thinking about the monstrous price of human negligence."

Blame Not Fixed

The deputy minister refused to assign specific blame for the tragedy, saying only, "We don't have any facts to prove lack of discipline."

Nedyak said the 61-year-old Admiral Nakhimov was in good working order despite its age. "Evidently the ships are not at fault, but the people are," he observed.

Nedyak said that among the surviving crew members was the skipper, Capt. Vadim Markov, who has been in his post since 1959. His counterpart on the freighter, Viktor Katchenko, has been captain of that vessel since 1980, Nedyak added.

In establishing the government investigating panel, however, he announced that it would include prosecutors and would be headed by Geydar A. Aliyev, a senior member of the ruling Politburo. Aliyev was reported to be in Novorossiysk on Tuesday.

The liner was on its way to Sochi, one of the most popular Soviet Black Sea ports, when it went to the bottom. The Soviet weather bureau said conditions were clear with apparently calm seas at the time of the accident.

The release of detailed information on the collision at a news conference--a contrast with the Soviet Union's efforts to throw a cloak of secrecy about major accidents in the past--appeared to be part of a new Soviet policy of openness. Not only did Nedyak hold an extensive press conference, but Izvestia ran a detailed account that included quotations from eyewitnesses, and a full report appeared on the evening television news program Vremya.

After the loss of the Admiral Nakhimov was reported, an official spokesman accepted questions from the foreign press, giving international telephone interviews in English.

The Associated Press broadcast bureau in London got a telephone interview with the Maritime Ministry's chief external affairs director, Igor M. Averin. His secretary handled the flood of calls with no trace of the hostility that normally greets reporters who call government agencies even on minor matters.

Still, the Kremlin waited for more than 18 hours before it disclosed the accident Monday and waited another day before providing casualty figures.

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