Outside Argentina’s Mar del Plata naval base, an angry crowd amassed in November 2017. Their nearest and dearest had been lost at sea for eight days – and the anxious friends and relatives of the submariners wanted answers. How could a modern submarine, with sophisticated hi-tech support, simply vanish with all 44 hands on board? Then Argentine Navy officials stepped forward to deliver some heartbreaking news.
The TR-1700-class submarine ARA San Juan started life in a shipyard in then-West Germany, where it was completed in June 1983. The vessel was launched in 1985. And a few years later, the diesel-electric sub was enlisted in war games by the U.S. Navy. The San Juan also played its part in a number of other exercises, and in 2008 it underwent an update. The maintenance work on the San Juan then took longer than expected, due to budgetary constraints, but the vessel was successfully relaunched in 2013.
As a unit of the Argentine Submarine Force, the San Juan was one of three such vessels stationed at a naval base close to the city of Mar del Plata. Translated as “Sea of the Silver Region,” the city lies some 260 miles south of the Argentinian capital, Buenos Aires, on the country’s Atlantic coast. And from its easterly base, the San Juan took part in surveillance maneuvers, largely gathering intelligence to combat illicit fishing.
At the beginning of November 2017, the San Juan then found itself in the waters of Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago off the coast of Chile and Argentina. The island group forms the most southerly tip of the South American continent. And after performing well in war games organized by the Argentine Navy, the submarine traveled to Ushuaia, the Argentinian capital of the islands. Ushuaia is, interestingly, sometimes known as “The End of the World.”
So it was that on November 13, 2017, the San Juan set off on the 1,800-mile journey home to Mar del Plata. The craft was manned by a crew of 44. Among them were operations chief Eliana Maria Krawczyk, the first woman to become a submarine officer in her country, and Commander Pedro Martin Fernandez. At 45 years old, Commander Fernandez had been in charge of the vessel since 2015.
Then, four days later, on November 17, relatives of the San Juan crew received some alarming news. Apparently, the submarine had been missing for two days, with the Argentine Navy having heard nothing at all from it since November 15. The last contact had reportedly been made when the sub was 450 miles off the eastern coast of Argentina in the San Jorge Gulf – roughly halfway home.
As the loved ones of the San Juan submariners waited anxiously, a search-and-rescue operation had been launched to track down the missing sub. Soon, as many as 27 ships scanned the area where contact with the vessel had been lost. And although the majority of these boats were Argentinian, contingents from Brazil, Chile, the U.K. and the U.S. Navy, among others, all joined the hunt.
Meanwhile, in the skies, an international fleet of aircraft began scouring the surface of the South Atlantic Ocean for any sign of the San Juan. And back on shore, Mauricio Macri, the president of Argentina, relocated to Mar del Plata in order to personally supervise the air-and-sea search on the ground. For their part, the relatives of those on board the submarine continued to wait on tenterhooks.
On November 18, the families’ hopes were then raised by an Argentinian Ministry of Defense update. The government department said that it had received a number of calls that day from a satellite phone it suggested may have been on board the submarine. Sadly, though, the communications had not been connected – and worse, they were later revealed to have been a false alarm. In reality, the rescue efforts were not going well, as severe storms hampered the attempts.
As the days dragged on, it therefore became clear that time was running out. With the submarine still thought to be underwater, the crew’s air supply would by now be running perilously low. The Argentine Navy estimated that the oxygen tanks on the San Juan could keep a 44-strong crew alive for seven to ten days. Furthermore, if the vessel had merely been experiencing communication difficulties, it should have already reached its destination at Mar del Plata.
On November 20, there was then a sliver of hope when authorities received reports of sounds akin to people banging on the submarine’s hull having been detected by sonar equipment. However, these noises were soon dismissed by experts as deriving from unspecified marine life. For the families and friends hoping for news of their loved ones, it was a heartbreaking waiting game. “We don’t know anything; we’re desperate,” a relative told The Guardian on November 19.
Then, on November 23, a shocking new development emerged that would test the families even further. The Argentine Navy announced that it was pursuing a new lead. Apparently, the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, or CTBTO, had detected something unusual in its operations. It flagged up data that it was analyzing from November 15 – the day on which the San Juan disappeared.
The CTBTO data was collected at a listening base on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean. It suggested that there had been an explosion in the area where the submarine had vanished – just hours after it had last made contact. And although the search-and-rescue operation continued, some of the crew members’ next of kin began reporting troubling telephone calls.
Luiz Tagliapietro, whose son Damian was on board the San Juan, spoke to U.K. tabloid the Daily Mail on November 24. Apparently, Tagliapietro had received a telephone call from an Argentine Navy official confirming the father’s worst fears. “My son’s boss confirmed that they’re all dead,” he said. “There’s no human being that survives that.”
And although the Argentine Navy claimed to have only found out about the explosion a week after the submarine’s disappearance, some nevertheless begged to differ. Indeed, a growing number of family members expressed anger and disbelief at the way things had been handled. “They are a disgrace. They lied to us,” Itati Leguizamon, wife of crew member German Oscar Suarez, told the Daily Mail.
Yet despite the families’ rising fury, officials did not confirm the submarine’s loss for several days. Worse still, the Argentinian authorities continued to suggest that the San Juan crew might still be found alive. Then, on November 27, the Argentine Navy made another dramatic announcement. Apparently, the vessel’s last communication had reported a leak that had damaged batteries and started a fire.
Finally, then, on November 30, more than a fortnight since the San Juan had last been heard from, the Argentine Navy announced that it was calling off the rescue mission. Yet as the hunt for survivors turned into a salvage operation, different theories began emerging as to what had really happened on board the ill-fated submarine.
Did the damaged batteries explode, causing fatal damage to the underwater asset? Or did the San Juan’s 22 torpedoes unexpectedly go off while still on board, wreaking havoc on the submerged sub? The latter tragic accident is, after all, thought to have caused the sinking of the K-141 Kursk submarine. The Russian vessel came to grief in the Barents Sea with the loss of 118 souls back in August 2000. However, there was no evidence to suggest that something similar had happened to the San Juan.
In the face of secrecy from Argentine authorities, some observers have begun to wonder whether something sinister was at work. In fact, heartbroken relatives have accused officials of a cover-up. Interestingly, female crew member Eliana Krawczyk’s brother has claimed that his sister called him before the San Juan even left Ushuaia, telling him that the submarine was experiencing a mechanical fault.
Today, the bereaved are still trying to find out the truth about what happened to their loved ones. Yet sadly no answers seem to be forthcoming. And while some are petitioning the Argentine Navy to continue their search, others have accepted that all is lost. In December 2017 Jesica Gopar paid a touching tribute to her missing submarine officer husband, Fernando Santilli. Speaking to the Daily Mail, she said, “He’s a hero who must be recognized. I hope you didn’t suffer, my love.”