Hopes for the survival of 44 crew members of the missing Argentine submarine ARA San Juan all but vanished yesterday as the country's navy said a "violent event consistent with an explosion" had been detected three hours after the vessel disappeared in the South Atlantic.
Search vessels were combing an area with a 120km radius close to the submarine's last known position, after analysis from the United States and Austria revealed a "hydroacoustic anomaly" on the morning that the ARA San Juan lost contact after reporting a fault with its batteries.
Captain Enrique Balbi, a navy spokesperson, confirmed "a singular event, short, violent, non-nuclear, consistent with an explosion" had occurred some 50km north of the site the submarine disappeared.
Eight days into the search, the revelation of the apparent explosion led to cries of anger from waiting relatives who had gathered at the Mar del Plata base to receive psychological counselling. Some broke into tears and hugged each other after they received the news. Some fell on their knees or clung to a fence crowded with blue-and-white Argentine flags, rosary beads and messages of support. Most declined to speak, while a few others lashed out in anger at the navy's response.
Speaking outside the Mar del Plata Naval Base, Itati Leguizmon, wife of radarist German Oscar Suarez, said she felt "deceived" by navy officials, who she alleged had "lied to us" and withheld information on the missing submarine.
"They sent a piece of crap to sail," she 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."
Some relatives had become "aggressive" when they were informed, Leguizmon said, and were "breaking things" inside the base.
Balbi defended the delay amid a barrage of questions. He insisted the report from the US had only been "officially" received on Wednesday and the second from Austria — which offered more details on the source of the anomaly.
The "hydroacoustic anomaly" was recorded by hydrophones — listening posts scattered around the world's oceans capable of detecting underwater noise — and the material had to be collated, analysed and cross checked, the spokesman explained.
The ARA San Juan had previously reported a short-circuit in its batteries and been ordered to divert to the Mar del Plata naval base; the location of the purported explosion lies on the route it is likely to have taken. Balbi said an explosion inside the submarine could have caused it to implode, which could explain why no debris had been found in the area.
Family members have also rounded on authorities over what they say was the decrepit state of the submarine. Built in 1985, the German-made vessel was fully renovated in 2014, and the Argentine Government has dismissed complaints over its age, insisting it was well maintained.
But Leguizmon — a lawyer — alleged that the ARA San Juan had in fact suffered a serious fault in 2014, and that all of the crew and their families were well aware of the precarious conditions they were working in.
"My husband told me that they had a fault in 2014 and that it was serious, that is all. That it was serious and it generated a bit of tension and fear inside there."
She said crew regularly said of the submarine that "it is all held together with wire".