The international search mission for the ARA San Juan, Argentina’s missing submarine, entered its sixth day Tuesday, with assumptions of low oxygen supply prompting the Navy to say the desperate efforts to find the vessel may be in a “critical phase.”
The ARA San Juan made its last contact with authorities on Wednesday, November 15, to report a mechanical breakdown, but, as storm conditions which had impeded rescuers eased, officials said they were not ceding to despair yet. They admitted, however, that there was great uncertainty over the fate of its 44 crew members.
The sub carries enough food, oxygen and fuel for the crew to survive about 90 days on the sea's surface. But it only has enough oxygen to last seven days if submerged.
"We haven't discarded any hypothesis. Assuming the most critical phase, which would be the submarine is submerged and cannot surface or renew its air and oxygen, we are in the sixth day of oxygen," Navy spokesman Enrique Balbi told a press conference in Buenos Aires.
"As a submariner, I am not losing hope," Balbi said.
Balbi had some good news at least, saying that conditions had improved, meaning those searching for the vessel had clearer waters.
"We do not rule out any hypothesis," he added, asking members of the press "not to speculate because it would be irresponsible. We do not know what happened from the day we lost communication."
The 34-year-old German-built diesel-electric submarine was refitted between 2007 and 2014 and had notified Naval officials that there had been a breakdown in its batteries. The vessel said it was diverting its route from the far south of Argentina's Atlantic waters to the navy base at Mar del Plata, where most of the crew live. It didn't issue a distress call, however. It was not known if the problem ended leaving the vessel without propulsion or unable to surface. The search began November 16, after which there has been no more contact.
The sub's disappearance has gripped the nation, and President Mauricio Macri visited the relatives and prayed with them. On Tuesday, Macri led a meeting of Naval commanders as the government vowed to do everything possible to find the missing crew-members.
On Monday, underwater sounds detected briefly caused hopes to surge, but they were later ruled out as not coming from the sub.
"It may have been a noise from a living thing," Balbi said on Monday, calling it potentially “biological.”
Another false hope dawned on Monday, when a US aircraft said it had spotted white flares. The San Juan carries red and green flares, Balbi said, but authorities will still try to identify the origin of the white signals. He also said that a life raft that was found in the search area early Tuesday doesn't belong to the submarine and likely fell off another vessel.
"We're evaluating where the flares came from. For now, based on the colour, they don't belong to the submarine," Balbi said. "It's quite common that ships pass by that area and also common that with the waves and the rocking, they can lose a raft."
Several satellite signals had also caused a start over the weekend, but they too were dismissed as not coming from the vessel.
"A little glimmer had started to shine and then it went out," Maria Morales, the mother of one of the sailors, said as she arrived at the Mar del Plata base on Tuesday.
Argentina is leading an air-and-sea search with help from nine countries, including Brazil, Britain, Chile, Colombia, France, Germany, Peru, the United States and Uruguay.
Poor weather in the South Atlantic had badly hampered the operation in the past few days. But Tuesday offered better conditions, with strong winds and waves that had towered as high as six meters (20 feet) starting to calm.
"Luckily, wind intensity has started to drop, and waves are three to four metres, which should allow a three-dimensional sweep of the (sea) floor," Balbi said.
The initial search zone was already big, with a diameter of 300 kilometres (200 miles) and a depth of up to 350 metres (1,200 feet). But there is a possibility it could be expanded, to seven times the area, according to the Defence Ministry.
'They will come back'
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 days.
There was also a Chinese sub accident in 2003 that 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.
"There's a mix of feelings: pain, helplessness, at times hope," Maria Morales said. "The feeling is that they will come back, that we will tell us today, 'They are back.'"