“An anomalous, singular, short, violent and nonnuclear event, consistent with an explosion.”
That one short sentence, uttered tentatively by Navy spokesman Captain Enrique Balbi during a press conference in Buenos Aires was all it took to confirm that, baring a miracle, the desperate search for the missing ARA San Juan submarine would end in tragedy. For the families of the 44 crew-members, the news was a devastating blow. Coming eight days after the last communication from the submarine, it effectively ended all hope that their loved ones had survived. Many of them collapsed into grief. Others erupted into anger.
In the parking lot of the naval base in Mar del Plata, where relatives had gathered for days, surrounded by reporters and TV cameras, some of the relatives hugged. Others slumped to the ground and cried inconsolably. Uniformed sailors at the base wept. One woman, a relative of a crewmember, approached a group of journalists but broke down in tears before she could say a word. “I’ve just learned that I’m a widow,” said Jessica Gopar, wife of Fernando Santilli, an electrician aboard the sub, before bursting into tears. “He was my great love, we were going out for seven years, married for six, 13 years together and now we have a son, Stefano. How do I tell my son that he is left without a father?” said Gopar.
After hearing the news of an explosion on board, she said her reaction was instant. “They’re all dead.”
More than 100 family members, friends and relatives waited this week hopefully inside the Mar del Plata naval base, as the perimeter fence became covered with messages of encouragement for the crew, religious images and Argentine flags and banners. The families of the crew, some from distant parts of the country, kept a desperate vigil, hoping for good news as the search-and-rescue mission continued.
The effort was truly multinational. Countries including Brazil, Britain, Chile, the United States and Uruguay, all bound together by the search to save lives, sent vessels and aircraft to scour the seas. It was far from easy. They had to battle high winds and raging seas for days, with waves at one point reaching more seven-metres high. The ARA San Juan, a German-built diesel-electric sub, had not been heard from since early Wednesday. It had reported a battery problem on November 15 and said it was diverting to Mar del Plata from the extreme southern port of Ushuaia, but did not send a distress signal, according to the Navy.
Underwater sounds detected in the first days of the search 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. Meanwhile, the search continued. The multinational armada of aircraft and vessels desperately scoured the seas for the vessel and its crew of 44. Time, however, was ticking down. If submerged and unable to rise to the surface, the San Juan could hold only seven to ten days of oxygen, the Navy said. Then on Thursday, after days of waiting, officials said that an “unusual” sound had been detected during the search for the missing submarine. They said it had come from an explosion.
The noise – which occurred at Wednesday, 15 November, at 10.31am, the day the submarine was last heard from – was heard in the ocean near the last-known position of the vessel, Balbi confirmed. “According to this report, there was an explosion,” Balbi told reporters. “We don’t know what caused an explosion of these characteristics at this site on this date.” US and specialist agencies confirmed the “hydro-acoustic anomaly” was produced just hours after the Navy lost contact with the submarine. The information was passed on by Rafael Grossi, Argentina’s ambassador to Austria and representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Speaking to Radio Mitre, Grossi seemed to indicate that the report had come from the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test- Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO), an organisation that detects nuclear testing. “They made a report which I conveyed to Chancellor [Jorge] Faurie and [Defence Minister Oscar] Aguad in which it said that a phenomenon was detected three hours after the last communication [from the vessel].”
“The technical conclusion is that it was a singular event of high intensity and that it was not consistent with [normal] marine noises or earthquakes,” he added, saying it was similar to “other underwater explosions” that had been registered in the past.
The implications were clear and the news was devastating. Within hours, the search for the San Juan had shifted from rescue to recovery, as Navy officials and experts lost hope of finding any of the crew alive. Depths plummet from 200 metres to over 4,000 metres on the edge of the Argentine shelf, where the sound of the explosion was picked up by hydroacoustic sensors. Experts say the sub would begin to breakup once below depths of around 600 metres.
Horacio Tobias, a former diverwho served on the San Juan, said the blast was likely “so violent that they did not have timeto realise anything.” The multinational search continued yesterday. The list of countries assisting now also includes Colombia, France, Germany and Peru. A Russian oceanographic research ship was travelling to the region yesterday to assist. Officially, even today, the Navy has still not declared the loss of the crew.
“We have to find the submarine at the bottom of the sea, the area is large, the environment hostile, and the search very difficult,” Balbi said yesterday.
Informally, however, the message was clear. Brenda Salva, friend of crewmember Damian Tagliapietra, said she had been told by the commander of the Mar del Plata naval base: “They are all dead.”
Yesterday, President Mauricio Macri held a press conference, his first public statement on the issue since the San Juan went missing. He delivered a short four-minute speech then departed immediately without taking questions. Addressing reporters at the headquarters of the Navy, Macri said the 34-year-old submarine was “in perfect condition,” having gone through a refit. The president said the tragedy “will require a serious, in-depth investigation that will yield certainty about what has happened.”
He said he ordered an inquiry to discover “the truth” about what happened to the missing submarine. “My commitment is with the truth,” he declared. “Until we have the complete information, we do not have to look for the guilty, to look for those responsible. First we have to have certainty of what happened and why it happened,” said Macri.
The president also paid tribute to the “patriotism, heroism and bravery” of the San Juan’s crew. “For all of them and their families, my greatest affection,” he said. Addressing the relatives of the missing crew, he said: “The pain is great but we are together, and we are going to travel this road all the way together.”
Not all the families welcomed the president’s words. “I want to tell Admiral MarceloSrur that he is not in a position tobe in charge of a force, and to the president (Mauricio Macri), to bring order,” said María Rosa Belcastro, the mother of 38-year-old Lieutenant Fernando Villarreal. Itatí Leguizamón, the wife of sonaroperator German Suárez, said that they days of false hopes had left the families feeling manipulated.
“I feel cheated. How do they know it just now? They are perverse and they manipulated us!” she said. “They don’t tell us they’re dead, but they tell us that the submarine is at lying at a depth of 3,000 metres. What can you understand from that?”. Leguizamón described how Navy officers had broken the news of the explosion to the families. “They asked most of the people to leave and just close family members to stay,” she said. “When they heard the news they all exploded in there, they jumped on them and they had to stop reading their statement. People became very aggressive.”
Relatives have focused their anger on the condition of the 34-yearold sub, which had undergone a seven-year refit to extend its service, and the Navy’s guardedness since the start of the search operation. “They sent a piece of crap to sail,” Leguizamón said. “They inaugurated a submarine with a coat of paint and a flag in 2014, but without any equipment inside. The Navy is to blame for its 15 years of abandonment.”
“They launched a search because it looks good! Because they sent shit out there to sail!” she declared angrily. “They already had problems in 2014, because it couldn’t surface. Now I don’t care if everything is known, he’s not here anymore,” she said, referring to her husband. Suárez, she said, “was prepared for death. He always went to confession and was at peace. He was ready.”
HEADS TO ROLL?
Reports yesterday in local media said that Macri’s government already was preparing to sack Navy chief Srur in a purge of top brass. Argentina, of course, is a country in which the military is generally distrusted. For many, memories are still fresh of the atrocities commited under the 1976-83 military dictatorship, which was responsible for the disappearance of an estimated 30,000 people.
“The government is considering changing the leadership of the Navy. They believe there was negligence in the disappearance of the ARA San Juan and criticise the handling of the situation,” read a story in Clarín yesterday.
Reports also emerged that the Navy had taken five days to inform the Defence Ministry of the battery problem aboard the German-built diesel-electric submarine. The San Juan “has 500 tons of lead-acid batteries, which release hydrogen if there is an overcharge in the battery. Hydrogen in contact with oxygen is explosive,” said Gustavo Mauvecin, director of the Center for Hyperbaric Medicine at Mar del Plata.
For some, the mystery of not knowing where their loved ones are is just too much to bear, despite what they may have been told. “Hope is the last thing you lose. I’m waiting for a surprise, but I’m not really counting on it,” Luis Tagliapietra, the father of 27-year-old crew-member Alejandro Damian Tagliapietra, said yesterday.
“You go from denial to suffering, from optimism to pessimism,” he said, holding back tears. “[But] I asked them if they were all dead, and they said: ‘Yes.’”