MAR DEL PLATA, ARGENTINA - Federico Ibanez clings to a fence crowded with blue-and-white Argentine flags, rosary beads and messages of support for his brother and 43 other crew members of a missing submarine that should have arrived to a naval base days ago. But his hopes are slowly dwindling.
Ibanez and other relatives of the sub’s crew are now growing increasingly distressed as experts say that the vessel lost in the South Atlantic for seven days might be reaching a critical period of low oxygen Wednesday.
The ARA San Juan went missing Nov. 15 when it was sailing from the extreme southern port of Ushuaia to the city of Mar del Plata, about 250 miles (400 kilometers) southeast of Buenos Aires. The Argentine navy and outside experts worry that oxygen for the crew would only last seven to 10 days if the sub is intact but submerged. Authorities still do not know if the sub rose to the surface to replenish its oxygen supply and charge batteries.
The German-built diesel-electric TR-1700 class submarine was set to arrive Monday to a naval base in Mar del Plata, where local residents have arrived bearing messages of support for relatives of the crew anxiously waiting for news.
More than a dozen international airplanes and ships have joined the maritime search despite stormy weather that has caused powerful waves of more than 20 feet (6 meters). The search teams are combing the waters in a wide area of some 185,000 square miles (480,000 square kilometers), which is roughly the size of Spain.
On watch from shore
From the shore, Jorge Villarreal, kept his eyes transfixed on the ocean, hoping to catch a glimpse of the vessel that carries his son, Fernando Villareal, a submarine officer.
“As a dad I want him to be rescued immediately but we can’t forget about the inclemency of the weather. And the foreign help just doesn’t come from one day to the next,” he said. “We hope this will go right because of the improving weather and the technology that’s being used.”
The U.S. government has sent two P-8 Poseidon aircraft to Argentina, a naval research ship, a submarine rescue chamber, and sonar-equipped underwater vehicles.
U.S. Navy sailors from the San Diego-based Undersea Rescue Command are also helping with the search.
Hopes were lifted after brief satellite calls were received and when sounds were detected deep in the South Atlantic. But experts later determined that neither was from the missing sub.
A U.S. Navy aircraft later spotted flares, and a life raft was found in the search area, but authorities said that they did not come from the missing submarine either.
The false alarms have rattled nerves among distraught family members. As the search enters a critical phase, some have begun to complain that the Argentine navy responded too late.
“They took two days to accept help because they minimized the situation,” Ibanez, the brother of 36-year-old submarine crew member Cristian Ibanez, told The Associated Press.
The navy has said the submarine reported a battery failure before it went missing as it journeyed to the navy base. Authorities have no specific details of the problem.
“I feel like authorities let too much time pass by and decisions were taken late,” Ibanez's sister, Elena Alfaro, said outside the base. “And yet, I still carry some hope.”