By Walter Bianchi
MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina, Nov 21 (Reuters) – Rescuers searching for an Argentine navy submarine that went missing in the South Atlantic nearly a week ago with 44 crew aboard were expected to be able to pick up the pace on Tuesday as fierce weather abated.
Storms and high winds have limited the search for the ARA San Juan in the past several days. On Tuesday, waves were expected to be about 2 meters (6.6 feet) high in the search area, down from 8 meters over the weekend, meteorologists said.
“The bad weather continued through yesterday. Luckily, from today onwards the intensity of the wind and the height of the sea will begin to fall,” navy spokesman Enrique Balbi told reporters.
Overnight, searchers found an empty raft floating in the ocean, and also noticed white flares from a distance. However, the raft’s brand and lettering suggest it did not belong to the submarine, and the flares the submarine was equipped with are red, Balbi said.
Officials are nonetheless trying to identify where the flares came from, he said.
In the worst-case scenario in which the submarine has been unable to rise toward the surface to “snorkel,” the vessel has enough oxygen to last seven days, Balbi said.
“Today is a critical day,” said Maria Victoria Morales, the mother of Luis Garcia, an electrical technician aboard the vessel. “We are holding up as well as we can.”
Morales and other relatives of crew members have been gathered at a naval base in Mar del Plata, where authorities are coordinating the search and rescue operation.
More than a dozen boats and planes from Argentina, the United States, Britain, Chile and Brazil have joined the search. Authorities have mainly been scanning from the sky as storms have halted the maritime hunt.
The submarine was en route from Ushuaia in Argentina’s extreme south to its base in Mar del Plata when it transmitted its last location on Nov. 15. The vessel had reported an electrical problem when it disappeared nearly 300 miles (480 km) off the coast.
Searchers have suffered disappointments in recent days as analysis of satellite signals and sounds detected by underwater probes – initially thought to be messages from the crew – has found they did not come from the vessel.
The U.S. Navy was preparing on Tuesday to deploy rescue equipment, including a remote-operated vehicle.
The ARA San Juan was inaugurated in 1983, the newest of three submarines in the navy’s fleet. Built in Germany, it underwent maintenance in 2008 in Argentina.
The maintenance included the replacement of its four diesel engines and its electric propeller engines, according to specialist publication Jane’s Sentinel.
(Additional reporting by Maximilian Heath, Juliana Castilla and Nicolas Misculin in Buenos Aires; Writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Frances Kerry)
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