Missing submarine: Argentine navy ends rescue mission

The Argentine Navy has called off rescue efforts to find 44 crew members aboard a missing submarine, effectively acknowledging that there’s no hope they’ll be found alive.

The ARA San Juan disappeared a few hundred kilometers off Argentina’s coast on November 15, and despite an extensive air and sea search no sign of the sub has been found.

Navy spokesman Enrique Balbi told reporters Thursday the navy had allowed nearly double the amount of time it would have been possible for the crew to stay alive if the submarine remain submerged. Officials had earlier said the submarine had enough air to last seven to 10 days.

Balbi wouldn’t speculate on the fate of the crew, but said the search for the missing sub will continue until it’s found.

“Despite the magnitude and efforts made it has not been possible to locate the submarine. Information was received from two sources of international organizations that report an anomaly and acoustics in the vicinity of the last known position of the San Juan submarine and later confirmed with an event consistent with an explosion,” Balbi said.

At the height of the search, 28 ships and nine airplanes scoured the sea, backed by more than 4,000 people over a search area of more than 15,000 miles off the Argentine coast.

Eleven countries joined the searching including Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, Peru, the United States and United Kingdom.

Few clues point to the submarine’s fate, but in recent days authorities have released more details of what’s known to have happened before it vanished mid-way on its journey from Usuaia in the country’s south and northern port of Mar del Plata.

Timeline

November 15, 12:30 a.m.: The sub’s captain calls his land-based commander by satellite phone, saying that seawater has entered the vessel’s “snorkel,” a tube that reaches the surface to refresh the vessel’s air and recharge the batteries. He says the water caused a short-circuit in the battery system in the vessel’s bow and the beginnings of a fire, or smoke. The smoke was put out and the short-circuited system was isolated.

The captain indicates that the battery- and diesel-powered sub would continue traveling with its stern batteries.

6 a.m.: The captain types the same message and relays it to base electronically, as is protocol following a phone conversation.

7:30 a.m.: The captain calls base again, this time to say that the vessel is traveling, submerged, as planned, without any personnel problems.

10:31 a.m.: A sound consistent with an explosion is detected in the ocean, near the sub’s last known location.

Families desperate for answers

When it became clear the submarine was in trouble, relatives of those on board gathered outside the Mar del Plata navy base, where many of the submariners were based.

For more than two weeks, they’ve been pushing for answers, relying on updates from the Argentine navy for a glimmer of hope that their relatives may have survived.

Local school children attached messages to the fence around the base, praying for those on board, as the entire country waited for news.

The submarine last made contact on Wednesday, November 15, when it was submerged, the navy said.

It was heading from a base in southern Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego archipelago to its home port in Mar del Plata, about 260 miles south of Buenos Aires, and was scheduled to arrive on Sunday, November 19.

On Saturday, November 18, seven communication attempts were recorded which were initially believed to originate from the ARA San Juan. But officials later said the radio calls did not come from the missing sub.

Two ships also detected sonar sounds they thought may have come from the ship, but they too were later discounted.

It then emerged that an explosion-like sound was picked up by monitoring systems operated by the United States and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organization, or CTBTO.

“Two CTBTO hydroacoustic stations detected an unusual signal in the vicinity of the last known position of missing Argentine submarine ARA San Juan,” the CTBTO said.

The Argentine navy spokesman Balbi said last week there was no evidence of any attack and no information on the cause of the noise.

At the time, news of the suspected explosion angered relatives who accused the military of refusing to admit the submariners were dead.

Maria Itatí Leguizamón, the wife of one of the crew members, told CNN en Espanol last Thursday that she assumed those on board had not survived.

“They did not tell us that they are dead, but this is a logical assumption,” she said.

“These (expletive) knew it. They did not give an explanation. They said that according to them, they now know (about the sound), but how do they now know? How could they not know that?”