The Argentine military submarine ARA San Juan and crew are seen leaving the port of Buenos Aires, Argentina June 2, 2014. (Armada Argentina / Handout via Reuters)
Mar Del Plata - Whipping winds and 20-foot waves in the South Atlantic were hindering the international search for an Argentine submarine with 44 crew members on board on Saturday as authorities readied a mission to comb the sea floor for signs of the missing military vessel.
The German-built ARA San Juan submarine last reported its location 432 km (268 miles) off Argentina’s southern Atlantic coast early on Wednesday, prompting a massive search-and-rescue operation on Friday.
But a storm pitching powerful winds and waves 6 meters (20 feet) high has disrupted visibility and movement in the area, navy spokesman Enrique Balbi told reporters. The submarine’s color and design, which aim to camouflage the ocean’s surface, also posed a challenge.
A scouring of about 80 percent of the area initially targeted for the operation turned up no sign of the vessel, navy official Gabriel Gonzalez told reporters.
The dramatic search has captivated the nation of 44 million people, which recently mourned the loss of five citizens who were killed when a truck driver plowed through a bicycle path in New York City.
Carlos Zavalla, a navy commander, urged the loved ones of crew members not to give up hope. “So far, the only concrete thing is the lack of communication,” Zavalla said on TV channel A24. “That’s all.”
A crew member of the Argentine military submarine ARA San Juan stands on the vessel at the port of Buenos Aires, Argentina June 2, 2014. Picture taken on June 2, 2014. (Armada Argentina / Handout via Reuters)
Messages of support poured in from abroad. Pope Francis, an Argentine, was praying “fervently” for the crew to return home soon, his office said.
Authorities were preparing for a high-tech operation to explore the bottom of the ocean, said Gonzalez.
Argentina has deployed more than a dozen boats and planes to scour for the submarine. “We can’t rule anything out,” Balbi told a presser, adding that crew members should have ample supplies of food and oxygen.
Foreign governments have also sent military planes and boats, including the U.S. Navy’s P-8A Poseidon maritime aircraft, NASA’s P-3 explorer aircraft and the British Royal Navy’s ice-patrol ship the HMS Protector, according to statements from the United States and Britain.
The Argentine navy said an electrical outage on the diesel-electric-propelled vessel might have downed its communications. Protocol calls for submarines to surface if communication is lost.
If the search ends in tragedy, the episode could put the country’s poor safety record in the spotlight, with potential political implications for President Mauricio Macri.
His center-right government has set an ambitious target for cutting government spending and told Reuters in March that it had few funds at the ready to replace an outdated military fleet beyond buying aircraft for training pilots.
Many family members of crew members eagerly awaited news at the naval base in the port of Mar del Plata, where the ARA San Juan had been headed.
“We’re hopeful this will end soon to remain only as a bad memory,” Maria Morales, the mother of crew member Luis Esteban Garcia told journalists at the port.
The Argentine military submarine ARA San Juan and crew are seen leaving the port of Buenos Aires, Argentina June 2, 2014. Picture taken on June 2, 2014. (Armada Argentina/Handout via Reuters)
Stormy weather was expected through Sunday afternoon in the area of sea where the submarine was last tracked, said a source in the navy who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The ARA San Juan was inaugurated in 1983, making it the newest of the three submarines in the navy’s fleet.
Built in Germany by Nordseewerke, it underwent mid-life maintenance in 2008 in Argentina that required cutting its hull in half and sealing back it together again, according to state news agency Telam.
Nordseewerke now belongs to German industrial group Thyssenkrupp AG, which could not be reached for comment outside of regular business hours.