“These are less than favorable conditions that do make things difficult,” said Cmdr. Erik Reynolds, a United States Navy spokesman. “You’re talking about 44 sailors out there. If they’re in trouble, there’s a finite amount of time to get to them, so I think there is a great deal of concern by the international community.”
The mystery surrounding the fate of the crew aboard the San Juan, a German-made submarine that has been part of Argentina’s fleet since 1985, has transfixed the nation since news of its disappearance broke early Friday. The submarine last made radio contact on Wednesday.
Roughly 200 family members of the service members onboard were invited to await news at the Mar del Plata Naval Base in this seaside city, where two psychologists and one psychiatrist were on hand.
“This has turned into one big family, and we are all helping each other get through this difficult time,” María Morales, 51, the mother of crew member Luís García, said in an interview. “Sadly we don’t have any news, but at least there is no bad news.”
On Sunday, Argentine Navy officials sought to temper hopes raised the previous day by reports of the satellite phone calls.
Iridium officials have repeatedly called the company’s satellite phone onboard the vessel since Friday, but have had no luck getting through, according to an employee familiar with the effort who was not authorized to speak on the record. Argentine officials would not say whether the vessel had other satellite phones onboard.
Officials involved in the search and submarine experts following developments were contemplating a range of possibilities for what might have happened to the submarine.
The best-case scenario, according to some experts, was that the submarine’s communications gear malfunctioned — perhaps as a result of a fire or flood — but that it did not lose the ability to navigate. Working against that theory is the fact that the submarine was due to arrive at its home port here on Sunday.
“It’s grim,” said Capt. Richard Bryant, a retired United States Navy submarine commander. “It implies that the ship is either on the surface without the ability to use its propulsion or that the ship is submerged.”
The first of those possibilities is deeply concerning, but not hopeless, according to experts. Given the stormy conditions, the crew is in significant peril if the vessel is being whiplashed.
The grimmest alternative is that the submarine sank as a result of a catastrophic event such as an explosion or fire. If the crew survived such an event, those onboard could conceivably have enough oxygen for several days after it went under, according to an Argentine Navy official who was not authorized to speak on the record.
If it is flailing on the surface, and the crew manages to weather the storm, the sailors would have enough fresh water and food to last for about 25 days, the official said.
The growing concern on Sunday was fueled by the fact that the crew had not activated emergency beacons that are standard in commercial and military vessels.
“The fact that we haven’t had communication for so long, that it didn’t show up at port as expected, and the fact that at least the initial search effort hasn’t found anything yet all point to the fact that the submarine may well unfortunately have been lost,” Captain Bryant said.
In Mar del Plata, residents on Sunday affixed Argentine flags and signs outside the military base.
“With the soul at a standstill until they return,” one read. “Stay strong Argentina; In God we trust; We await your return,” said another message, scrawled in large black letters on a flag.
Argentine veterans were among the well-wishers who gathered outside the base on Sunday, a bitterly cold and gusty day in this city, a popular summertime destination.
“I think it’s very important to be here to show support for the crew and their family, show them there is a city rooting for their safe return,” said Adolfo Albornoz, 79, a veteran of the Falklands War.
Mr. Albornoz said he resented the continued British control of the islands, which Argentina calls the Malvinas, that were the subject of that short war in 1982. “But in this case I’m glad they’re helping out. This is a time to set aside our differences.”
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