Argentina Minister Says Country Without Means to Rescue Sub

Relatives of the crew of the ARA San Juan submarine embrace outside the navy base in Mar del Plata, Argentina, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. Photo: Federico Cosso / Associated Press
Relatives of the crew of the ARA San Juan submarine embrace outside the navy base in Mar del Plata, Argentina, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. Photo: Federico Cosso / Associated Press

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Hours after announcing the discovery of an Argentine submarine lost deep in the Atlantic a year ago with 44 crew members aboard, the government said Saturday that it is unable to recover the vessel, drawing anger from missing sailors’ relatives who demanded that it be raised.

Defense Minister Oscar Aguad said at a press conference that the country lacks “modern technology” capable of “verifying the seabed” to extract the ARA San Juan, which was found 907 meters (2,975 feet) deep in waters off the Valdes Peninsula in Argentine Patagonia, roughly 600 kilometers (373 miles) from the port city of Comodoro Rivadavia.

Earlier in the morning, the navy said a “positive identification” had been made by a remote-operated submersible from the American company Ocean Infinity. The company, commissioned by the Argentine government, began searching for the missing vessel Sept. 7.

It remained unclear what the next steps could be.


In a statement to The Associated Press, Ocean Infinity CEO Oliver Plunkett said authorities would have to determine how to advance. “We would be pleased to assist with a recovery operation but at the moment are focused on completing imaging of the debris field,” he said.

Navy commander Jose Luis Villan urged “prudence,” saying that a federal judge was overseeing the investigation and would be the one to decide whether it was possible to recover a part or the entirety of the ship.

Without adequate technological capabilities, however, Argentina would likely need to seek assistance from foreign countries or pay Ocean Infinity or another company, potentially complicating its recent commitment to austerity. Argentina is currently facing a currency crisis and double-digit inflation that has led the government to announce sweeping measures to balance the budget and concretize a financing deal with the International Monetary Fund.

Any move to recuperate the vessel would also be a logistically large and challenging undertaking based on the submarine’s distance from the coast, its depth, and the kind of seabed upon which it is resting.

Relatives of crew members were determined to fight for it to be quickly surfaced.

Isabel Vilca, the half sister of crewman Daniel Alejandro Polo, told the AP that the discovery was just the beginning.

She said families need to recover the remains of their loved ones to know what happened and help prevent similar tragedies.

“We do know they can get it out because Ocean Infinity told us they can, that they have equipment,” said Luis Antonio Niz, father of crew member Luis Niz. “If they sent him off, I want them to bring him back to me.”

The sub’s discovery was announced just two days after families of the missing sailors held a one-year commemoration for its disappearance on Nov. 15, 2017. The San Juan was returning to its base in the coastal city of Mar del Plata when contact was lost.

On the anniversary Thursday, Argentina President Mauricio Macri said the families of the submariners should not feel alone and delivered an “absolute and non-negotiable commitment” to find “the truth.”

On Saturday, Aguad said that the vessel was found to be in an area that investigators had deemed “most likely.”

Officials showed images of the submarine, which was located on a seabed with its hull totally deformed. Parts of its propellers were buried and debris was scattered up to 70 meters (230 feet) away.

The German-built diesel-electric TR-1700 class submarine was commissioned in the mid-1980s and was most recently refitted between 2008 and 2014. During the $12 million retrofitting, the vessel was cut in half and had its engines and batteries replaced. Experts said refits can be difficult because they involve integrating systems produced by different manufacturers, and even the tiniest mistake during the cutting phase can put the safety of the ship and crew at risk.

The navy said previously the captain reported on Nov. 15, 2017, that water entered the snorkel and caused one of the sub’s batteries to short-circuit. The captain later communicated that it had been contained.

Some hours later, an explosion was detected near the time and place where the San Juan was last heard from. The navy said the blast could have been caused by a “concentration of hydrogen” triggered by the battery problem reported by the captain.

Macri promised a full investigation after the submarine was lost. Federal police raided naval bases and other buildings last January as part of the probe, soon after the government dismissed the head of the navy.

Argentina gave up hope of finding survivors after an intense search aided by 18 countries, but a few navy units have continued providing logistical support to Ocean Infinity.

On Saturday, Plunkett tweeted: “Our thoughts are with the many families affected by this terrible tragedy. We sincerely hope that locating the resting place of the ARA San Juan will be of some comfort to them at what must be a profoundly difficult time.”


He also said: “This was an extremely challenging project and today’s successful outcome, following the earlier search operations, firmly endorses our technology.”

The company unsuccessfully searched for the Malaysia Airlines plane that disappeared in 2014 over the Indian Ocean.

Story: Almudena Calatrava