Survivors recount frigid ordeal after Black Sea sinking

At least 14 die, 5 missing as old Ukrainian vessel goes down with traders

January 30, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - A worn-out old survey ship, pressed into service to carry small-time traders back and forth across the Black Sea, foundered with its load of overcoats and leather goods Friday night and left its survivors to drift two days before their rescue.

It was a vessel whose passengers, so-called "shuttle traders" who pick up goods at Turkish markets for resale in Ukraine and Russia, made a habit of living and working in the shadows. And when it faltered and sank, nearly 48 hours were to pass before anyone ashore began to wonder what might have happened to it.

At least 14 people are dead and five more are missing. Late Sunday night and early yesterday, rescuers plucked 32 people from rafts - drenched, cold, exhausted.

The shuttle traders exist because they live in a part of the world where the basic structures of a functioning economy hardly work anymore. And their chartered vessel, the Pamyat Merkuria, sank for the same sort of reason; it was ill-equipped and ill-handled.

When the ship went down, there were 51 people aboard and life rafts for 40. The water temperature was in the low 40s and the misty air somewhat cooler.

Vadim Zakharov clambered onto a raft designed for 10 people that had 24 on board.

"It was very cold, the weather was bad, water always pouring inside," he said in a telephone interview yesterday from the hospital in Sevastopol, Ukraine. "My feet were aching, stiff and cold. We couldn't sleep; we were afraid we'd freeze.

"There was one guy, and he died of hypothermia. He was 21. He just sat frozen. I don't even know his name. As there was so little space, we decided to tie him to a rope and pushed him into the water. For some time he was there, but then we lost him."

The Pamyat Merkuria - which means Memory of Mercury and was the name of a famous Russian warship of the 19th century - was about 100 miles southwest of Sevastopol when it lurched suddenly and heeled to starboard. For about 10 minutes, the 790-ton ship hung as if suspended, survivors said. Everyone scrambled on deck, life rafts were launched, and then the Pamyat Merkuria capsized and sank.

Thrown into the water, passengers and crew scrambled onto the rafts. No emergency signal was received anywhere on shore that night or by any of the ships in the area, because, in all likelihood, none was ever sent out. The ship, built in the early 1960s in Poland, apparently did not have a functioning radio on board.

The captain, Leonid Ponomarenko, 62, was in critical condition yesterday, according to Volodymyr Pashynskyi, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Emergency Situations Ministry. Considering its condition, Pashynskyi said, the Pamyat Merkuria never should have strayed more than 20 miles from shore.

What happened to the ship is not clear. Ukrainian authorities speculated that it might have been overloaded with goods from Istanbul, but rescued seamen said that was not the case. Improperly stowed freight might have shifted suddenly, or some hull failure could have occurred.

Typically, shuttle traders have most or all of their money tied up in the goods they're bringing home. They can't simply order a delivery of leather jackets, for instance, because everything is done for cash and there would be no way to make a payment or to trust that an order would ever show up. They must constantly contend with taxmen, customs agents and bandits.

The United Nations estimates that millions of Ukrainians have taken part in the shuttle trade. It's a hard life - 16 traders were killed in a hotel fire in Istanbul a few years ago. They travel to Turkey by plane, by bus through Bulgaria and by boat across the Black Sea.

But now, on a cloudy, stormy night in the northern reaches of the Black Sea, with all their trade goods headed for the bottom, the passengers of the Pamyat Merkuria were thinking only of staying alive.

There were four women on Zakharov's raft. A 24-year-old engine-room hand, he had no answer for the question they kept asking: "Is anybody looking for us?"

Night turned to day, and the people on the overloaded raft struggled to keep it balanced. It grew dark once more - and now they had to shake one another to be sure that no one dropped off to sleep. A second night passed, long and soaking, and still no one was looking for the ship.

Finally, on Sunday, an alarm was raised in Yevpatoria, Ukraine, the Pamyat Merkuria's home port. Ukrainian planes and ships began a search for the overdue vessel.

At 10 p.m., those on Zakharov's raft saw their first ship. "We shot off some flares," he said, "and it turned out they were looking for us."

The vessel that rescued them was the aptly named Heroes of Sevastopol. But a second raft that was found Sunday evening had had a grimmer time of it. There were six survivors on board, and eight bodies.

A third raft, with three passengers, was picked up yesterday morning. Five people are missing; six others have not been found but are confirmed dead by survivors, Ukrainian officials said.

Survivors were taken to City Hospital No. 1 in Sevastopol. Natalya Belenko, the chief doctor, said that all were suffering from hypothermia and from skin rashes caused by continual contact with salt water.

"They're in a state of euphoria," she said, "but they're in bad shape physically. We fear some may have pneumonia."

Tearful relatives from the cities of Zaporozhye, Kharkov and Simferopol gathered at the pier to await news. A list of survivors was posted. The search continued until nightfall.

The whole nation seemed, at last, to know of the disaster - to know the miserable fate of people pushed by economic woes into a nasty way of life and a hard, lonely death.

Vyacheslav Syrovatkin, from his hospital bed, looked into a television camera and said: "I can't understand how we could survive that."

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