LJUBLJANA, Slovenia – Divers pulled seven bodies out of the Sava River and fought strong currents Friday to search for five other people still missing after two canoes were crushed running over a dam in southeastern Slovenia.
Two people managed to swim ashore after their boats crumpled, overturned and capsized but one died Friday in the hospital, raising the death toll to 8, according police spokesman Robert Perc. The second survivor remained hospitalized.
The accident happened late Thursday, when two large canoes decided to run over a dam under construction near Sevnica, a town 56 miles southeast of the capital of Ljubljana. At that section, the dam, part of a hydroelectric plant, is currently built only to about the height of the water.
The trip — ominously dubbed "The Final Descent" — was organized by local officials and all participants were Slovenians. It was to be the last ride down that section of the river, which will soon be blocked by the hydroelectric plant.
Two other canoes — part of the four-boat excursion — left the river before reaching the site.
Slovenian TV journalist Goran Rovan, who had been in one of the safe canoes, told the state-run news agency STA the other canoes capsized and broke apart when they hit the whitewater passing through the dam gates. The occupants fell into the river and were sucked underwater by the rapids.
Slovenian TV showed chilling footage Friday of the canoes entering the dam, followed by the sound of screams. Then the boats were crushed and flipped over.
Rovan said people rushed over and managed to help the two who had reached the shore, but could do nothing more because of the dangerous currents. He told STA that almost none of the victims wore life vests.
Police divers raced immediately to the scene, but rescue operation was hampered by the river's strong currents. More than 15 divers combed the river Friday, trying to find survivors or bodies. A police helicopter flew over the area, while police, civil protection and fire services swept the river banks.
Prime Minister Janez Jansa rushed to the site in early Friday, declaring the accident a "great tragedy."
"(Rescuers) are doing everything that is humanely possible," he said.
Economics Minister Andrej Vizjak denied speculation that the dam could have been better secured or blocked. He told STA that those in the canoes had clear security instructions.
"Some of them did not respect (the rules) and decided to take a dangerous descent," he said, calling the accident the "consequence of a wrong human decision."
Perc said Sevnica mayor Kristijan Janc, who also is a member of parliament, was among the dead. Local media reported his wife Ana was the only survivor.
The Slovenian parliament canceled its Friday session.