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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Drownings Jump in Sizzling Moscow

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With the mercury hovering at 30 degrees Celsius and higher, thousands of Muscovites tempted fate over the weekend by seeking respite from the heat in the city's reservoirs and rivers.

Thirty-two people drowned, 18 of them on Saturday. In all, at least 225 people have drowned so far this summer in Moscow, about 75 more than in June and July last year.

Lifeguards called most of the deaths avoidable, saying parents could have prevented the drowning of a 5-year-old boy and a surly 18-year-old should have listened to his mother.

Alarmed by a jump in drownings, President Vladimir Putin ordered the government Monday to take urgent steps to boost water safety.

"Our Moscow River is not worse than the Mediterranean Sea coast," said Putin, freshly back from the Group of Seven summit in the coastal city of Genoa, Italy. "The weather offers a great opportunity for relaxing [on the beach]. But surely, there is a need to secure people's safety."

"This is not empty talk. There are too many accidents," he said, according to his press service.

Indeed, the situation seems critical this year. Rescuers say the drownings are the result of a sharp decline in the number of people who know how to swim coupled with heavy drinking. Also, there is a shortage of lifeguards.

About 50 percent more people have drowned so far this summer than over the same period last year, said Lyudmila Skvortsova, spokeswoman for Moscow's emergency services.

Even more alarming, the number of drownings nationwide has tripled since Soviet times, according to the All-Russian Rescue on Waters Society, the 129-year-old organization set up by Tsar Alexander III to operate water rescue services.

About 22,000 people drowned in 2000, compared to an average of 7,000 a year in the Soviet Union before 1991, the society said.

Valery Novikov, acting chairman of the society, blamed the sharp increase in deaths on the decay of water rescue infrastructure. He said the organization ran 15,200 rescue stations in Soviet days but now has only 456.

"There is no way we can combine rescuing and commerce," Novikov said.

Emergency Situations Ministry departments across the country also assist in water rescue operations, but judging by the number of people drowning their efforts are doing little to help.

Moscow has 23 rescue stations to safeguard swimmers in the city's more than 300 reservoirs and rivers.

Lifeguards themselves know all too well why more people are drowning. They say the vast majority of adults who die are drunk, while an increasing number of people don't know how to swim.

"Up to 80 percent of all army conscripts now cannot swim," Novikov said. "The situation has never been this bad before."

The decline in the number of swimmers is directly linked the inaccessibility of swimming lessons and pools for the majority of the population, Novikov said. Many people don't want to — or can't — pay for lessons and access to the city's pools.

Skvortsova of Moscow's emergency services said drinking coupled with traditional Russian bravado behavior leads to foolish deaths.

"Many get drunk and then go for a swim in places where swimming is prohibited," she said. "But to make matters even worse, some try unrealistic activities — such as swimming across rivers on a bet — that often end up in tragedy."

On Moscow's beaches, lifeguards agreed that the swimmers themselves are often to blame for their deaths.

Valery Grichkov, a rescuer with 30 years experience who works at the popular Serebryany Bor, said too many people don't realize that even the quietest and shallowest of water can be dangerous. "A boy drowned here last week. He was only 5," he said. "An eyewitness told us that the boy looked completely confident in the water and looked like he could swim.

"However, the very same man, as he entered the river few minutes later bumped into something soft on the bottom — it was that very boy who drowned," Grichkov said.

The beach rescue station's doctor, Lidia Goreyeva, who pronounced the child dead, pointed the finger at the boy's parents.

"Instead of watching for the boy, they went to search for their dog," she said. "It's just so irresponsible."

In another incident last week, a teenager drowned at Serebryany Bor while celebrating his 18th birthday. He refused to listen to his mother's advice not to go to the beach that night, saying he was already an adult, Grichkov said. His body was recovered the next morning with the help of professional divers.

"Such a young boy and such a silly death," Grichkov said, sighing.

Grichkov and others at the Serebryany Bor Bezdonnoye Ozero rescue station fish about four people out of the water a day, sometimes dead, sometimes alive.

Also last week, the rescuers were patrolling the area on a boat when they saw a rowing boat ram straight into the head of resurfacing diver.

"All I could see was the head popping out of the water and the boat hitting it straight on. Then there was blood and screaming," Grichkov said.

"We immediately pulled him out and passed him on to the paramedics. From what we know — although he had fractured facial bones and a concussion — the guy is getting better," he said.

Huub Golsteijn contributed to this story.