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ARGENTINA | 24-11-2018 08:25

ARA San Juan: attention switches to probe, potential refloating

Desperate relatives of 44 late crew-members call on government to raise wreckage from depths; Defence Ministry says Argentina lacks technology and means to do so.

The discovery of the wreckage of the ARA San Juan, Argebntina’s submarine lost a year ago at sea, has revived the stalled probe into the cause of the undersea disaster that took the lives of 44 crew-members.

Families of the victims this week called for the submarine to be refloated, an enormous undertaking that authorities cautioned was likely beyond their means.

“We’re talking about a vessel that, filled with water, weighs 2,500 tons,” said the federal judge in charge of the investigation, Marta Yáñez.

Yáñez, based in Caleta Olivia, in Santa Cruz province, said she would not risk raising the submarine “if that means causing it to break up.”

“I prefer to preserve the evidence in place,” she said. But she has issued summonses to the naval officers who were aboard the Seabed Constructor when it found the submarine last Friday, a year and a day after it vanished in the South Atlantic with all aboard.

Crushed from an implosion, the submarine was located at a depth of more than 900 metres in a desolate area of undersea craters and canyons 400 kilometres off the coast of Penisula Valdes. An underwater robot sent down by the Seabed Constructor, which specialises in ultra-deep water exploration, has relayed 67,000 images of the sunken vessel to the Navy.

Luis Tagliapietra, the father of crew-member Ensign Alejandro Tagliapietra, was among those on board the ship when it located the submarine.

“I don’t have words to describe it, I feel profound pain and anguish,” he said in a brief video carried by local media, the day after the discovery was announced. “But at the same time we know where they are and it is the first step to learn the truth of what happened.”

“It’s a very hard day, an inconceivable, unreal day. But it is also the first step, which has taken a year, to reach the truth. We are not going to rest until we know what happened.”

Defence Minister Oscar Aguad met last Saturday with the families of the victims and showed them photographs of the wreckage, including images of a propeller, the sub’s torpedo-launching tubes and an upper section of the vessel lying on the ocean floor.

“We are all destroyed here,” said Yolanda Mendiola, the mother of crew-man Leandro Cisneros, 28.

“I still had hopes that they could be alive,” Luis Niz, the father of a missing sailor, told reporters, even though the government had declared two weeks after the sub’s disappearance that there could be no survivors.

Aguad will address a Congressional committee on December 4 about the submarine. His last appearance was on April 16, five months after the vessel’s disappearance.

INVESTIGATION

Although an official investigation was opened a year ago, investigators have had little to go on until now.

Nonetheless, Navy chief Marcel Srur was removed from his post in December.

According to preliminary information released by the Navy, the San Juan imploded two hours after its last communication with the Mar del Plata naval base, its home port, on November 15, 2017. The sound of the explosion was recorded and traced to the general area where the submarine was found.

In a message broadcast last weekend, Macri promised to get to “the truth needed to honour and respect our heroes and their families.”

“A serious phase of investigation is underway to know the whole truth, a truth to which we’ve all been committed from day one,” he said.

“It is a news that delivers us enormous pain, the confirmation of the death of the 44 crewmembers in dramatic circumstances. Today is the saddest day,” Macri said, announcing three days of national mourning.

He did not refer to whether a decision had been taken to try and refloat the vessel.

The director of Ocean Infinity, Oliver Plunkett, released a message Sunday in which he expressed to the families his hope that “having located the site where the ARA San Juan brings them comfort. “

“In addition, we hope that our work will deliver them answers and that lessons learned will prevent any similar event from ever happening again,” he added.

REFLOATING

The relatives of the 44 naval officers who went missing on the submarine remain hopeful the vessel could be resurfaced. However, both the Defence Ministry and Yáñez have played down the chances of attempting to resurface the submarine from its final resting place.

Aguad said at a press conference last weekend that the country lacks “modern technology” capable of “verifying the seabed” to extract the San Juan, adding that Argentina has “no means” to do so.

Relatives of the crew were disppointed by those words.

“There are ways to surface it. We believe it is impossible to resurface it as one piece, but perhaps it could be done in pieces,” said Luisa Rodríguez,, the mother of submariner Gabriel Alfaro Rodríguez.

She and other relatives protested last weekend against the government at the Mar del Plata naval base.

“I didn’t even listen to Macri. I don’t care about mourning. I will mourn when I know the truth about what happened to [those on the] submarine,” Rodríguez said.

Relatives say the government dragged its feet when it came to investing money and time into search and rescue efforts.

“It’s an issue of money. Our children gave their lives to protect our seas,” said Luis Niz.

He was one of the relatives who had led a 52-day protest camp in Playa de Mayo this past winter, where relatives demanded the Macri administration hire a private firm to continue with the search effort. Those efforts would eventually bear fruit.

For her part, María Victoria Morales – who lost her son Luis Esteban García – said “it is difficult but it is not impossible to resurface” the vessel.

Few among the loved ones of the 44 officers believe the remains of the vessel should be left untouched, yet some don’t want the vessel raised.

“My brother’s place is the sea,” Lourdes Meilán, who lost her brother David, said.

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