Argentina's missing submarine: 'No one will be rescued'

Navy will now only look in shallower waters for ARA San Juan, which sank off Patagonia, with 44 crew on board

Argentina has called off the rescue operation for its missing submarine 15 days after a reported explosion apparently sent it to the bottom of the Atlantic ocean off the coast of Patagonia.

“No one will be rescued,” said navy captain Enrique Balbi, who has been acting as official spokesperson for the rescue effort. Nonetheless, the search operation for the ARA San Juan would continue in waters of up to 500 metres deep, he added.

“Despite the magnitude of the effort made it has not been possible to locate the submarine,” said Balbi, referring to the multinational response that has included US, British and Russian aircraft, ships and personnel.

The submarine had 44 people on board. Luis Tagliapietra, whose son Damián was a 27-year-old trainee on the submarine, told the TN news channel: “This is perverse and impossible to understand. They’re playing word games,” referring to the navy announcing it was calling off rescue efforts while agreeing to continue searching for the submarine as long as it is not in too deep waters. “What they are really saying is that they’re not going to be looking for it any more.”

The San Juan went missing on 15 November when it lost radio contact with the naval base in Mar del Plata, but it was not until two days later that the navy announced publicly that the submarine had gone missing.

“More than double the number of days than it would have been possible to rescue the crew have passed,” Balbi told reporters.

The huge sea and air rescue effort for the German-built submarine will now be reduced to trying to locate the vessel itself.

Relatives of the crew had already abandoned hope that they would be found alive. “They lied to us from the start,” Tagliapietra said to the Guardian. “We don’t know what happened and it’s impossible to tell the truth from fabrication.”

Relatives of the crew are bitter at the amount of misleading misinformation they received from the government in an apparent attempt to keep their hopes alive in the first few days after the submarine disappeared.

These included a tweet by the defence minister, Oscar Aguad, three days after the submarine went missing saying that seven satellite phone call attempts from the ARA San Juan had been picked up by navy listening posts, a report that later turned out to be false.

Relatives had already started abandoning hope one week ago when the navy announced it had received information from the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organisation, an international body based in Vienna that runs a global network of listening posts designed to check for secret nuclear blasts.

The agency said on 23 November that it had detected an unusual signal near where the submarine went missing on 15 November that seemed to be a “non-nuclear” explosion.

The long delay in the announcement, which came a full week after the reported blast occurred, surprised relatives.

“I’ve started legal proceedings in the name of my son to find out what happened,” said Tagliapietra, speaking from the coastal town of Caleta Olivia in southern Argentina where he had travelled on Wednesday to speak to the judge in charge of investigating why the submarine disappeared.

“I’m a lawyer and I’m acting in my son’s name, but seven other families of crew members have already asked me to represent them,” Tagliapietra said.

He is particularly angry about the navy withholding information that was later revealed by the press, showing that shortly before it lost contact the submarine warned naval commanders that water had entered through its snorkel and had got into its batteries.

“Why did the navy keep this a secret?” Tagliapietra asked. “Why was this turned into a secret of state? What does it matter reporting that a submarine had a problem? What does it change?”

Other relatives blamed the government for the delay between the submarine going missing and when the military made the news public two days later. “If they had made it public as soon as they lost communication, rescue efforts could have started two days sooner,” said Tagliapietra.

Other relatives questioned the wisdom of sending a 34-year-old submarine to make the 3,000km trip from the southern naval base of Ushuaia to Mar del Plata in the north. “I don’t think such an old submarine was ready to do such a long voyage,” said María Itatí Leguizamón, whose husband was on board.

Leguizamón had already given up hope her husband could be found alive before the navy’s announcement on Thursday.

“My husband was very religious and I had a funeral mass said for him last weekend,” Leguizamón told the Guardian. “There was an explosion, that’s a fact we have to face and the only answer I have is that they all died. Faith isn’t hanging on to something impossible, faith is believing in an afterlife.”

  • This article was amended on 1 December 2017 to correct the spelling of Luis Tagliapietra’s surname.


Uki Goñi in Buenos Aires

The GuardianTramp

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