MEXICO CITY — A sound "consistent with an explosion" has been detected in the search for an Argentine submarine that has been missing for a week with 44 crew onboard, the navy said on Thursday.
Spokesperson Enrique Balbi said the blast, which occurred on the morning of Nov. 15, was "abnormal, singular, short, violent" and "non-nuclear".
The cause of the explosion is unknown, but Argentina has said that there is no evidence of an attack on the submarine.
Hope of finding the crew members aboard the naval vessel alive had already plummeted on Wednesday, as one of the largest rescue operations in the country’s history revved up, when the Argentine navy told reporters that the oxygen supply aboard the submarine is likely dwindling to critical levels.
“There is no contact whatsoever,” Argentine navy spokesman Enrique Balbi told reporters. The current oxygen supply aboard the sub remains unknown, as it’s not clear whether it has been able to resurface during its radio silence.
The discovery of the blast is consistent with an "acoustic anomaly" recorded on Wednesday, which took place at same time and place that the vessel gave its last location, about 270 miles off the coast.
Relatives of the missing crew gathered in Mar del Plata, the coastal city where the Argentine Navy’s ARA San Juan had been headed, to await news. Their emotions were stretched to the limit after experts determined that flares and a life raft discovered in the search area did not come from the missing submarine. Sounds detected on Monday deep in the Atlantic along the vessel’s route, initially believed to be banging against its hull, were also determined to not be coming from the San Juan.
That false hope aggravated the relatives’ horror of envisioning their loved ones stuck in a death trap in the depths of the ocean, the time quickly ticking away.
“It could be, it could not be. A sound, not a sound. A whale, not a whale. It’s illogical … it could’ve been screams, it could’ve been so many things,” Elena Ibañez, one of the missing crew member’s sister, told TV Publica Argentina in between sobs.
“We have so, so much pain. So much pain,” said Ibañez.
Aircrafts and vessels from the US, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Uruguay, Peru, and Brazil, among others, have been scouring about 185,000 square miles, an area slightly bigger than California.
The German-built San Juan was on a routine patrol about 240 miles off the coast of Patagonia when it reported damage to its battery system last Wednesday. The crew made seven satellite calls to the base but none went through.
President Mauricio Macri traveled to Mar del Plata on Monday to meet with relatives.
“It’s practically suicide to send them in something so old,” a woman in the crowd told Macri. “You’re playing with the lives of our people.”
The San Juan was commissioned in 1985 and refitted three years ago. During that process, undertaken because hydrogen emissions from the batteries had “put the crew and vessel at risk,” according to Tandanor, the state-owned shipyard in charge of the repair, the vessel was taken completely apart. Reassembling it required “a level of precision that admits no error,” the company said in a 2014 video.
The entire region has been following the search mission with bated breath. Many drew a comparison to the frantic rescue of 33 men in a collapsed mine in Chile in 2010. In that case, all of the miners were rescued alive after 68 days underground.