Argentina’s navy said Thursday that it is no longer looking for survivors among the 44 sailors aboard a submarine missing for 15 days, though a multinational operation will continue looking for the vessel.
Hopes of finding survivors had dimmed because experts said the crew had only enough oxygen to last 7 to 10 days if the sub remained intact under the sea. The navy also had said an explosion was detected near the time and place where the ARA San Juan made its last contact with shore Nov. 15.
Navy spokesman Enrique Balbi said the rescue mission had “extended for more than twice what is estimated for a rescue.”
“We’ve had 28 ships, nine aircraft, 4,000 people involved, 18 countries supporting,” Balbi told reporters. “Despite the magnitude of these efforts, we’ve been unable to find the submarine.”
Balbi said the search was no longer considered a rescue mission, but the hunt would go on for the missing sub.
Some relatives of the crew broke into tears after they received the news.
“I don’t understand this arbitrary and unjustified decision,” Luis Tagliapietra, the father of 27-year-old crew member Alejandro Tagliapietra, told local TV. “It’s unusually cruel. Every day, it’s a new blow. I’m destroyed.”
The navy has said the vessel’s captain reported that water entered the snorkel and caused one of the submarine’s batteries to short circuit. The captain later communicated by satellite phone that the problem had been contained.
Some hours later, an explosion was detected near the time and place where the San Juan was last heard from. A navy spokesman said this week that the blast could have been triggered by a “concentration of hydrogen” caused by the battery problem reported by the captain.
The San Juan, a German-built diesel-electric TR-1700 class submarine, was commissioned in the 1980s and was most recently refitted in 2014.
Some family members have denounced the navy’s response to the sub’s disappearance as well as the age and condition of the vessel. President Mauricio Macri has promised a full investigation.