MAR DEL PLATA (Argentina) • Relatives of the 44 crew members on board Argentina's missing submarine erupted in anger and grief after the navy released news of an explosion on board, effectively ending hopes of survival.
Eight days after the last reported communication from the submarine, a navy spokesman said on Thursday that an unusual noise detected near the ship's last known position was likely an explosion.
Ms Itati Leguizamon, wife of sonar operator German Suarez, said that days of false hope had left the families feeling manipulated by the navy, which they said had repeatedly withheld information about the crew's fate.
"I feel cheated. How do they know it just now? They are perverse and they manipulated us!" said Ms Leguizamon, a lawyer.
"They don't tell us they're dead, but they tell us that the submarine is lying at a depth of 3,000m. What can you understand from that?"
In the car park of the base, some of the relatives hugged, others slumped to the ground and cried inconsolably. Uniformed sailors at the base wept.
Around 100 family members had been waiting hopefully inside the Mar del Plata Naval Base, the perimeter fence of which is festooned with messages of encouragement for the crew, religious images and Argentinian flags and banners.
ABOUT THE INCIDENT
Here are five pressing questions about the submarine tragedy.
1 WHAT COULD HAVE CAUSED THE EXPLOSION?
The Argentinian navy said it did not have enough information to say what the cause could have been or whether the vessel might have been attacked.
One likely cause is the ARA San Juan sinking below its "crush depth", at which point its structure will not be able to withstand the water pressure.
2 WERE THERE SIMILAR CASES IN THE PAST?
It is extremely rare for submarines to sink. It last happened in 2000 when Russian submarine Kursk suddenly sank to the floor of the Barents Sea after two explosions in its bow. All 118 men aboard died.
3 FOR HOW LONG COULD THE CREW SURVIVE?
The ARA San Juan has enough oxygen for its crew to survive underwater for seven days if there is no hull breach.
4 DID A BATTERY MALFUNCTION CAUSE THE EXPLOSION?
A navy spokesman said on Thursday there was no evidence that a battery problem reported by the submarine captain shortly before it went silent was related to the explosion.
5 WHY IS IT SO DIFFICULT TO FIND A MISSING SUB?
Submarines are built to avoid detection. An expert said that a submarine is very hard to trace if it is resting on the seabed because under such circumstances, it will not be making any "noise".
SOURCES: BBC NEWS, NYTIMES, CNN, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, WASHINGTON POST
Families of the crew, some from distant parts of Argentina, have been keeping vigil here since a multinational air-and-sea search began on Nov 16.
Ms Leguizamon described how navy officers broke the news of the explosion to the families.
"They are going to continue looking for it because they have an obligation to do so. They asked most of the people to leave and just close family members to stay," she said.
"When (the family members) heard the news, they all exploded in there. They jumped on (the navy officers), who had to stop reading their statement. People became very aggressive."
Ms Jessica Gopar, wife of Mr Fernando Santilli, an electrician aboard the submarine, said before bursting into tears: "I've just learnt that I'm a widow."
After hearing the news of an explosion on board, her first thought was that the crew members were all dead.
"We are going to get together and ensure we are going to get justice. I don't need a plaque that says 'the heroes of the San Juan'," she said, before collapsing in tears.
"How do I tell my son that he is left without a father," said Ms Gopar, who on Wednesday posted an emotional Facebook message to her husband, saying that her one-year-old had just learnt to say "dad".
Mr Julian Colihuinca, 19, was at the perimeter fence, pinning up a plastic banner on which he had scrawled: "Be strong, the families of the 44."
He said: "I'm the son of a tactical diver. The tragedy hits close. I know all the crew by their faces."