Loved ones implore Argentine navy not to end missing submarine rescue effort

An undated photo provided by the Argentina Navy shows the ARA San Juan.

BUENOS AIRES — Desperate relatives pleaded with Argentine officials not to end efforts to rescue 44 crew members aboard a missing submarine after the navy announced Thursday it had shifted its focus to a search-only mission, effectively acknowledging there’s no hope they’ll be found alive.

The announcement, more than two weeks after the ARA San Juan disappeared off Argentina’s coast, shocked and angered relatives, including some who fainted or needed medical attention upon hearing the news, Susana Alvarez, a friend of one of the missing officers, told state-run news agency Télam.

“We feel that they are still alive,” one woman told CNN affiliate Todo Noticias. “Please do not suspend the rescue.”

The navy had allowed nearly double the amount of time it would have been possible for the crew to stay alive if the submarine remained submerged, navy spokesman Enrique Balbi told reporters Thursday. Officials earlier had said the submarine had enough air to last seven to 10 days.

As the rescue mission concluded, the search effort continued, with a reorganization of vessels and other assets already deployed, Balbi said.

That work would continue, he said, until the submarine is found, a result loved ones said would afford a measure of closure.

“We already have resigned ourselves that they could be dead because of all the time that has gone,” another woman told Todo Noticias. “We have to see that as a possibility.”

Added Alvarez: “We want to see the bodies because we need to grieve.”

Search mission continues

The ARA San Juan disappeared November 15 a few hundred kilometers off Argentina’s coast, about mid-way on its journey from Usuaia in the country’s south and its northern port of Mar del Plata.

At the height of the search, 28 ships and nine airplanes from 11 nations — including the United States and United Kingdom — scoured the sea, backed by more than 4,000 people over a search area of more than 15,000 miles off the Argentine coast.

Balbi wouldn’t speculate Thursday on the fate of the crew but recounted the few clues gleaned so far about the submarine’s fate.

“Despite the magnitude and efforts made it has not been possible to locate the submarine,” he said. “Information was received from two sources of international organizations that report an anomaly and acoustics in the vicinity of the last known position of the San Juan submarine and later confirmed with an event consistent with an explosion.”

Timeline details messages, explosion-like sound

Officials this week laid out the most detailed timeline yet of the latest communication with the submarine:

November 15, 12:30 a.m.: The sub’s captain calls his land-based commander by satellite phone, saying that seawater has entered the vessel’s “snorkel,” a tube that reaches the surface to refresh the vessel’s air and recharge the batteries. He says the water caused a short-circuit in the battery system in the vessel’s bow and the beginnings of a fire, or smoke. The smoke was put out and the short-circuited system was isolated.

The captain indicates that the battery- and diesel-powered sub would continue traveling with its stern batteries.

6 a.m.: The captain types the same message and relays it to base electronically, as is protocol following a phone conversation.

7:30 a.m.: The captain calls base again, this time to say that the vessel is traveling, submerged, as planned, without any personnel problems.

10:31 a.m.: A sound consistent with an explosion is detected in the ocean, near the sub’s last known location.

There was no evidence of any attack and no more information on the cause of the noise, Balbi said last week.

Families anxious for answers

When it became clear the submarine had met with trouble, relatives of those on board gathered outside the Mar del Plata navy base, where many of the submariners were based.

For weeks, they’ve been pushing for answers, relying on updates from the Argentine navy for a glimmer of hope that their relatives may have survived.

Local school children attached messages to the fence around the base, praying for those on board, as the entire country waited for news.

Word of the possible explosion at the time angered relatives, who accused the military of refusing to admit the submariners were dead.

Maria Itatí Leguizamón, the wife of one of the crew members, told CNN en Espanol that she assumed those on board had not survived.

“They did not tell us that they are dead, but this is a logical assumption,” she said. “These (expletive) knew it. They did not give an explanation. They said that according to them, they now know (about the sound), but how do they now know? How could they not know that?”