Argentina: families of 44 lost submarine crew furious over red tape

Delay in launching rescue criticised as RAF aircraft carrying emergency life support pods lands in South American country.

Relatives of those on board an Argentinian submarine that went missing in the South Atlantic a week ago have voiced their frustrations with rescue efforts, as hopes of finding the 44-member crew began to fade.

With the seven-day limit on the ARA San Juan’s oxygen reserves having been reached on Wednesday morning, hopes were pinned on the submarine having been able to replenish its oxygen supply by surfacing at some point during the last week.

Helena Alfaro was just one of many family members who congregated at the Mar del Plata naval base where the submarine was originally scheduled to arrive on Monday.

“I feel like I’m waiting for a corpse,” said Alfaro, the sister of Cristian Ibañez, who was a radar officer on the missing submarine.

“So much protocol, so much protocol,” she complained to TN news network, referring to the Argentinian navy’s long delay in advising the president, Mauricio Macri, that it had lost contact with the submarine.

Justifying the delay, navy chiefs said that military protocol advises a 48-hour waiting period before beginning search efforts for submarines lost at sea.

“I feel like I’m at a wake, that’s how I feel,” said a tearful Alfaro. “I also feel time passing and time is crucial. I’m deeply pained by the decisions taken. Why so much protocol? Is protocol going to bring them back?”

Meanwhile, reports of a strange noise detected by US sensors on 15 November in the area where the submarine was traveling at the time of its disappearance generated speculation that the San Juan may have suffered an explosion shortly after it last made radio contact.

Enrique Balbi, a navy spokesman, said in a press update on Wednesday evening: “Today we received official indication that corresponds to the morning of Wednesday 15 November, coinciding with the area of operations of the last registered location of the submarine. This indicator corresponds to a hydro-acoustic anomaly, 30 miles north of its last known location at 7.30am.”

Balbi refused to elaborate on the announcement, saying more details would be forthcoming on Thursday.

Macri is reportedly angry with his navy commanders because of their handling of the crisis. According to the Infobae website, Macri’s defence minister, Oscar Aguad, only learned the submarine was missing when he read about it in the press, after the navy announced last Saturday that it had lost contact with the San Juan on 15 November.

Also being called into question is the wisdom of having deployed a 34-year-old submarine to make the 10-day journey from the Argentinian port of Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, to the naval base in Mar del Plata.

The state of disrepair of Argentina’s naval fleet has long been an issue in the country. In one notorious incident, the navy’s British-built destroyer Santisima Trinidad, which participated on the Argentinian side in the 1982 war with Britain over the Falkland Islands, sank while moored at the Puerto Belgrano naval base in 2013. It took the navy two years to refloat the vessel.

In a video that went viral online, Macri, can be seen being berated by a relative of a San Juan crew member during his visit to the Mar del Plata base on Monday morning because of the age of the submarine.

“It’s practically suicide to send them out in something so old,” a female relative is heard telling the president in the video. “Couldn’t you invest the state budget in trying to buy a new submarine? You’re playing with the lives of our people. Does someone have to die for things to change?”

The UK Ministry of Defence said on Wednesday that an RAF aircraft had landed in Argentina to help with the search efforts.

The MoD said the British military plane, which took off from Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, is packed with three tonnes of equipment, including 12 deep emergency life-support pods.

HMS Protector, a Royal Navy ice patrol ship that arrived on Sunday, was deployed to the vessel’s last known location, and used its sonar equipment to search below the waves for the missing sub.

An RAF C-130 has also joined the search following an offer of assistance, and members of the specialist Submarine Parachute Assistance Group are also offering expert advice.

HMS Clyde, an offshore patrol vessel which was returning from a patrol to South Georgia, has also assisted with the search efforts.