AFP/Mar del Plata, Argentina
The clock ticked down yesterday on hopes of finding alive the 44 crew members of an Argentine submarine missing for a week despite a massive search of surface and seabed, amid fears their oxygen had run out.
The ARA San Juan would have had enough oxygen for its crew to survive underwater in the South Atlantic for seven days since its last contact, according to officials.
At 0730GMT yesterday, that time had elapsed. At the moment, we have no trace of the submarine,” navy spokesman Enrique Balbi told a news conference in Buenos Aires.
“The search is continuing. No type of contact has been detected. No clues. We are in the seventh day, in a critical phase for oxygen if we are in a scenario of immersion,” he said.
High seas and poor visibility in the South Atlantic have hampered the search since it began, around 320kms off the Argentine coast.
Waves have towered as high as 20 feet. The conditions have fed hopes that the vessel may be on the surface undetected.
“There is reason to think it can be on the surface,” said Dominique Salles, a former French submarine commander. “If it’s on the surface, it’s in a situation that’s not stable but it’s safe, it’s waterproof and floating on its ballast. It cannot sink, even though it may not be able to make headway because of lack of propulsion,” said Salles.
The sub’s visibility to planes and satellites being used in the search efforts is also greatly diminished by the weather conditions, he said, “because in a bad sea, the front and the back are submerged under the waves.”
Despite the mechanical problems it reported during its last contact last Wednesday, the crew could survive indefinitely if the sub retained the ability to rise to the surface to “snort” or replenish its air.
Conditions improved on Tuesday, but the forecast for today is once again poor.
The 34-year-old German-built diesel-electric submarine that was refitted between 2007 and 2014 had flagged a breakdown and said it was diverting to the navy base at Mar del Plata, where most of the crew members live.
It didn’t issue a distress call, however.
The sub’s disappearance has gripped the nation, and President Mauricio Macri visited the relatives — who have endured days of false hopes — and prayed with them.
Underwater sounds detected by two Argentine search ships were determined to originate from a sea creature, not the vessel. Satellite signals were also determined to be false alarms.
“A light begins to shine, and then it goes out,” said Maria Morales, the mother of one of the missing sailors.
“There is a curtain of smoke, we don’t know anything,” said Elena Alfaro, whose brother is aboard the submarine. “It doesn’t make sense that so much time has passed without anyone knowing anything,” she added. “The hours go by. We’re hoping for a miracle. I don’t want to bury my brother, I want him with me. I feel he’ll come back, but I am aware of time passing.”
Argentina is leading an air-and-sea search with help from several countries including Brazil, Britain, Chile, Colombia, France, Germany, Peru, the US and Uruguay.
The defence ministry said the search area could be expanded sevenfold, though it was already large.
The incident has recalled recent submarine disasters, perhaps most prominently that of the Kursk, a Russian nuclear sub that caught fire and exploded underwater in 2000, killing all 118 on board — some instantly, others over several days.
An accident aboard a Chinese sub in 2003 killed 70 crew, apparently suffocated after what Beijing termed “mechanical problems.”
Among the ARA San Juan’s crew is Argentina’s first female navy submariner: Eliana Krawczyk, 35.
Cards, banners with slogans and placards have been strung up on the outside of the Mar del Plata base’s wire fence, expressing solidarity with the families tensely waiting for any news.
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