Hundreds of the 888 holidaymakers who trooped back aboard the Soviet cruise ship Admiral Nakhimov on Sunday, Aug. 31, were citizens from the Ukraine, perhaps seeking to throw off the nightmare of last April’s Chernobyl nuclear disaster. At 10:30 p.m., Capt. Vadim Markov cast off, and the 17,053-ton vessel, her lights ablaze, set sail from the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk for the resort city of Sochi on the next leg of a sixday cruise. Forty-five minutes later and only nine miles out to sea, while passengers danced on deck, the vessel was struck amidships by the 18,604-ton Soviet grain carrier Pyotr Vasev. The Nakhimov sank in 15 minutes in 154 feet of water. Dead or missing and presumed drowned were 398 of those aboard—329 passengers and 69 crew members. None of the crew members aboard the Pyotr Vasev were injured. But the tragedy ranked as the secondworst peacetime disaster at sea since the Spanish steamer Valbanera went down off the Florida coast Sept. 9, 1919, with the loss of 500 lives.
In a striking departure from their traditional practice of withholding information about major domestic mishaps, Soviet officials and newspapers provided detailed accounts of the Nakhimov’s sinking. Leonid Nedyak, deputy minister of the maritime fleet ministry, told a Moscow news conference that the Vasev struck the cruise ship on the starboard side between the engine room and the boiler room “and, practically speaking, ripped the ship open.” A major rescue attempt was mounted as reports of the disaster spread. Meanwhile, both captains survived and have been taken into custody pending an investigation.
Soviet newspapers prominently featured the dramatic stories told by surviving passengers and crew members. According to the government newspaper Izvestia, the Nakhimov’s helmsman, identified only as Smirnov, said that the ship’s departure from Novorossiysk was normal and that “everything went well.” When the Nakhimov’s crew sighted the Vasev in the distance the duty officer sent out a radio signal. Then, said Smirnov, “we took a bearing. From the bearing, we realized that the ship was to cross our path.” The Vasev’s reply was reassuring. It was: “Don’t worry. We shall steer clear of each other. We shall do what is needed.” But several minutes later, recalled Smirnov, the Nakhimov’s crew realized that the freighter
had not changed direction and sent out another radio signal. Shortly after, he said, “I saw the dry-cargo ship telescoping into our side. They worked the screw astern but it was too late.” According to the newspaper Sovietskaya Rossiya, “The freighter was visible to the duty crew of the Admiral Nakhimov all the time.”
The passengers apparently did not realize what was about to happen. Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that some people were getting ready for bed while “others went on deck where a band was already playing.” The paper added: “Nothing presaged the tragedy which occurred at 11:15 p.m. Eyewitnesses say that everything happened in a flash.”
Rescuers pulled the survivors from the relatively warm waters of the Black Sea. Alena Pavlivskaya, on a honeymoon cruise with her husband, Yuri, told Izvestia that they had been trying to go to sleep when the collision occurred. “It was very frightening,” she said. “Everything went out from under our feet. I am a horrible coward and therefore screamed. Yuri was clearheaded. He immediately realized what to do, found life jackets and helped me. We slipped right overboard.”
As the Nakhimov began sinking, seamen on the Pyotr Vasev began a
frantic rescue operation. They were helped by the crew of a nearby pilot launch, coast guards on board patrol craft, helicopters, and residents of Novorossiysk. Up to 60 vessels were involved in the operation. One rescuer told Izvestia: “The water was covered by a layer of fuel oil and paint. People, exhausted, were often unable even to clasp the hand of their rescuer and some jumped into the waters to save people.” Said another seaman: “We tried to take women and children out of the water first. I remember three girls, scared, stained with fuel oil, who
seemed not to understand what was happening.” Komsomolskaya Pravda also reported that “rescue work was hampered by high waves which were stirred by a sudden gust of wind.” On shore, 29 of the survivors were taken to hospital, while Novorossiysk merchants brought food and warm clothing for the rest, who were taken to shelter. Said the news agency TASS: “Special attention was shown to children. They were given medicines, hot tea and cheered up as much as possible.” It was not known how many children were aboard, but five were rescued and two bodies were found.
Special planes and trains were marshalled to take the survivors home. But those who were residents of Moldavia, on the Romanian border, faced additional problems. Earthquakes had rocked the region, killing at least one person. Viktor Lebedkin of the Moldavian Communist Party Central Committee said that 45,000 homes and 1,000 schools and colleges were damaged in the second tremor, some beyond repair. Hundreds of miles of water pipes and power and communications cables were also destroyed or damaged.
But the quakes were overshadowed by the tragedy of the 575-foot Admi-
ral Nakhimov, named after the naval commander who defended Sevastopol against the British during the Crimean War in 1854 and 1855. The cruise ship was built in 1925 at the Vulkan shipyard in Bremen, Germany, as a steampowered transatlantic liner—later converted to diesel—and was originally christened the Berlin. After the German navy commandeered it during the Second World War, the ship saw service as a hospital and as a Baltic Sea transport. In 1944 the Berlin became a Red Cross ship carrying refugees westward away from the advancing Red
Army. On Feb. 1, 1945, the vessel struck a Soviet mine and sank near the Baltic port of Swinemunde—with no record of casualties. In 1949 the Soviets raised the ship, rebuilt it and renamed it, and during the 1950s it was the flagship of the Soviet Black Sea cruise fleet. Some Soviet sources claimed that the Nakhimov had a history of problems. But at the Moscow news conference Nedyak said that although the Nakhimov was old, it was “in good working condition.” And he added, “Evidently the ships are not at fault and people are at fault.”
As Soviet officials began to investigate the disaster and the behavior of the captains, TASS reported that Geidar Aliyev, first deputy prime minister and Politburo member, had been named to lead an inquiry. Earlier in the week Igor Averin of the merchant marine ministry told reporters in Moscow: “Usually a collision at sea is a result of a clash of opinions between two people, just like in a marriage. In a marriage, you can’t find a single person guilty.” But the nighttime crash off Novorossiysk was more like a death in the family.
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