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CHARGES FLY AS INVESTIGATION GOES ON

Tug sinks, eight killed

A Slovak tugboat negotiating its way in record flood-swollen waters of the Danube River capsized at an electric power plant near Vienna on October 23, killing eight Slovak crew members, Austrian rescue service officials and eyewitnesses said. A ninth Slovak crew hand, 46-year-old Emil Simek, was rescued by an Austrian boat after he jumped from the listing vessel. The accident occurred as the tugboat, a Slovak-registered vessel named "Ďumbier," was pulling a barge with a 750-ton load down the Danube, a river with a menacing current that had risen to its highest level in 40 years from record rainfall in Germany and Austria. The boat missed the passage into the shipping channel and banged into the sluice, causing it to jacknife with the barge it was pushing. The river's whipping current then carried it downstream and pinned it against a water-regulating weir, where it was sucked down by the river's force.


Tragedy on the Danube. Eight Slovaks died when the Ďumbier tugboat sank near Vienna.
AP/Guenter Artinger

A Slovak tugboat negotiating its way in record flood-swollen waters of the Danube River capsized at an electric power plant near Vienna on October 23, killing eight Slovak crew members, Austrian rescue service officials and eyewitnesses said. A ninth Slovak crew hand, 46-year-old Emil Simek, was rescued by an Austrian boat after he jumped from the listing vessel.

The accident occurred as the tugboat, a Slovak-registered vessel named "Ďumbier," was pulling a barge with a 750-ton load down the Danube, a river with a menacing current that had risen to its highest level in 40 years from record rainfall in Germany and Austria.

The boat missed the passage into the shipping channel and banged into the sluice, causing it to jacknife with the barge it was pushing. The river's whipping current then carried it downstream and pinned it against a water-regulating weir, where it was sucked down by the river's force.

The Ďumbier's remains were located two kilometers from the site of the accident, according to Heinz Kaupa, a member of the board of directors of the Austrian shipping company Donaukraft.

A spokesman for the Austrian rescue service, though, offered a different version, saying that the tug was found just 200 meters downstream by the pillar of a temporary road bridge. "We were looking in the wrong place at the start, but on the third sweep with the sonar device, we managed to track the wreck," said spokesman Hans Weber.

An investigation has been launched into why the sinking happened, but that hasn't stopped representatives on both sides of the border from offering their interpretations of the tragedy. Reinhard Vorderwinkler from the Austrian Shipping Authority said the deceased 45-year-old captain of the Ďumbier was responsible for the accident, adding that he lost control of the boat as it was about to enter the sluice at the Freuden dam, located just southeast of Vienna.

The current then dragged the tug into the main riverbed leading to the dam, Vorderwinkler added. That account was vehemently denied by the Slovak Shipping Authority (Slovenská Plavbá Dunajska - SPD).

"We completely rule out human error among the crew of our ship, as the Austrians put it," said Juraj Bohunský, the SPD's spokesman. "We ask one question: Who allowed the craft entry to the sluice under such unfavorable hydro-meterological conditions?"

The accident was the worst in SPD's history, according to company officials in Bratislava. It is also the biggest accident on the Austrian section of this critical commercial waterway since World War II, according to Austrian navigation officials. Despite the crash, estimated to cost 70 million ATS, there was no damage to the power station, which supplies most of Vienna's electricity.

Compiled by Richard Lewis from Central European News, ČTK and TASR.

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