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August 19, 2009

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Divers keep up frantic search but hopes fade for 64 workers

DIVERS scoured the swirling waters and cavernous rooms of Russia's largest hydroelectric plant yesterday but the plant's owner said it was doubtful that any of the 64 workers missing after an accident would be found alive.

The accident on Monday, which killed 12 other workers, shut down the massive Sayano-Shushenskaya power plant in southern Siberia and left several towns and major factories without electricity. The plant provides 10 percent of Siberia's energy needs, according to Russian media reports.

Two workers were found alive on Monday in niches inside the flooded structure, RusHydro acting chief Vasily Zubakin was quoted as saying, but hope was fading for the 64 still missing.

"With every hour, there is less and less chance left that we will find somebody alive," RusHydro spokesman Yevgeny Druzyaka told The Associated Press.

Federal investigators said an explosion destroyed walls and the ceiling in an engine room where turbines are located and caused the room to flood.

One of the plant's 10 turbines was destroyed, two were partly destroyed and three others were damaged.

The plant's dam, a structure that stretches a kilometer across the Yenisei River, was not damaged and towns downstream were not in danger, Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu said.

Regional Governor Viktor Zimin denied allegations that rescue teams had heard knocking sounds from inside the plant's structure, saying the dam's thick concrete walls would muffle any sounds from inside.

Former plant director Alexander Toloshinov, however, said some workers trapped in the flooded control room could have survived by finding a corner with some air left.

Three groups of divers were searching for the workers both inside the flooded rooms and in the river outside, Shoigu said in televised comments, adding that the workers were now believed to have drowned or been crushed by debris from the explosion.

The accident also produced an oil slick that by yesterday stretched more than 80 kilometers down the Yenisei.

Supplies from other power plants were being rerouted yesterday to help cover the region's shortfall.

RusHydro said a faulty turbine was likely to blame. The company said replacing the damaged equipment at the plant may take up to two years but the undamaged turbines could be put back into operation in a month.


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