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Main waterway to Europe blocked by sunken vessel

A ship carrying nearly 2,000 metric tons of steel smashed into a drawbridge in central St. Petersburg and sank in the Neva River on Friday, blocking the waterway that is a main artery of Russia's trade with Western Europe.

"I am afraid the salvaging may take more than 24 hours and even more than a few days," said Vladimir Ushakov, deputy head of the Baltic Emergency Board, which is directing the salvage operation.

Until the wreck is raised, traffic on the river will be blocked. About 40 ships a day traverse the river to and from central and western Russia river ports as the Neva connects with an extensive system of canals linking to the larger Volga River. Officials announced plans to first clean the waterway, then unload the sunken ship and eventually raise it, Interfax reported.

The Kaunas, a 93-meter ship which belongs to the Volga Shipping Line of Russia, struck a pier of the Liteiny drawbridge about 6 a.m. and sank. The reason for the accident was a fault in the steering mechanism, Interfax reported. As the Kaunas was sinking, the eight members of the crew and two children on board were safely rescued. The amount of fuel spilled was not dangerous and promptly localized. Crew members said they had hermetically shut the tanks, which contained 35 tons of fuel, prior to leaving the ship. The ship was insured up to $1.1 million.

St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev said the ship could be raised by either cutting it into pieces or as a whole, Izvestia reported. The underwater unloading began Saturday. It is not clear how long the raising operation will take because there have been no similar accidents on the Neva bed within the city limits.

Deputy Transportation Minister Nikolai Smirnov, who heads Russia's river fleet, arrived in St. Petersburg on Friday as head of the investigative commission. He ordered all ships stuck on the Neva to go through the Volga-Baltic Channel.

The Liteiny bridge is about two kilometers upriver from the State Hermitage Museum. St. Petersburg's seaport is at the mouth of the Neva, where it flows into the Gulf of Finland, an offshoot of the Baltic Sea.

(The Moscow Times 19.viii.02)

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