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Navy brass, low budgets blamed for Argentine sub disaster

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — An Argentine legislative commission has concluded that the sinking of a submarine with all 44 crew members was caused by the inefficiency of naval commanders and budget limitations, discarding theories the vessel was attacked or hit by a ship.

In a report released Thursday, the legislators also questioned the handling of the crisis by Defense Minister Oscar Aguad and President Mauricio Macri, who the commission said showed a “low level of involvement with everything related to the tragedy.”

The TR-1700-class diesel-electric submarine San Juan disappeared on Nov. 15, 2017, in the South Atlantic as it sailed back to its base at the port of Mar del Plata after participating in a training exercise.

The wreckage wasn’t found until almost a year later at a depth of 800 meters (2,625 feet) east of Patagonia’s Valdes Peninsula.

The discovery was made by a ship from the U.S. company Ocean Infinity, which had been hired to search.

"The hypotheses that the submarine was attacked by a foreign warship, hit by a fishing vessel or was performing secret tasks outside of jurisdictional waters have been discarded," said the commission, which was made up of lawmakers from different parties, including the governing party.

The report pointed to budget limitations in recent years as contributing to the disaster as well as "the failure to update technologies and maintain a minimal level of maintenance based on hours of use that produced a growing deterioration" of the submarine.

The navy "tried to continue to fulfill its ordered missions with increasingly reduced budgets. It accepted as normal operating under conditions that were far from optimal for the task," the report said.

The government did not immediately comment on the report.

Camila Mereles, relative of submarine ARA San Juan crew member Gabriel Alfaro, waits outside the navy base in Mar del Plata, Argentina on Saturday. Argentina's navy announced early Saturday, that searchers found the missing submarine ARA San Juan in the Atlantic a year after it disappeared with 44 crew members aboard.(Federico Cosso/AP)
Argentina lacks the ability to retrieve lost submarine and its dead

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.

The night before the submarine disappeared, the crew reported that the entry of water into the ventilation system had started a fire in one of the battery tanks.

The vessel surfaced and continued sailing. Its captain reported the next day that the situation was controlled and that he was preparing to descend to 40 meters (131 feet) to assess the damage and reconnect the batteries.

Nothing more was heard from the submarine.

"Fires in the battery tanks of submarines are very serious accidents ... the issue was underestimated by the entire chain of command" of the navy, the commission said.

The report said the then-commander of the submarine force, Claudio Villamide, "did not seek advice from qualified technical personnel." It said the naval chain of command "did not transmit to political leaders information in a detailed and complete form."

The commission said the defense minister was aware of the state of the fleet and the risks facing the submarine when it participated in the exercise.

A relative of the crew of the submarine San Juan waits outside the navy base in Mar del Plata, Argentina on Nov. 17. (Federico Cosso/AP)
A relative of the crew of the submarine San Juan waits outside the navy base in Mar del Plata, Argentina on Nov. 17. (Federico Cosso/AP)

Regarding the search operation, it said, “there was evidence of a lack of leadership in the face of the crisis as well as concealment of the circumstances of the tragedy from family members and public opinion.”

The report was presented in Argentina's Senate in the presence of family members of the crew, whose remains still lie at the bottom of the sea. Experts who participated in the search that located the wreck have said raising it to the surface would be too risky and expensive.

“This is historic, that a legislative commission is so expeditious and clear in investigating” the tragedy, said Luis Tagliapietra, father of one of the crew members. “I think that the responsibilities are clear.”

The German-built submarine that sank 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 vessel and crew at risk.

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