MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina / BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – The search for a submarine from the Argentine Navy disappeared in the South Atlantic for a week reached a "critical phase" on Wednesday as the 44 crew members on board could be staying without oxygen, said a spokesman for the army.
Dozens of planes and ships were searching for the ARA San Juan, a mission that plunged the sailors' relatives into an anguished wait for news and transfigured the 44 million-year-old South American country people. (Graphic: Argentina's missing submarine – tmsnrt.rs/2zQ8HGZ)
If the German-made submarine, in service for more than three decades, sank or could not come to the surface since it gave its last location in November. 15, would be consuming the last seven days of oxygen supply.
"We are in the critical phase … particularly with regard to oxygen," Navy spokesman Enrique Balbi told reporters. "There has been no contact with anything that could be the submarine San Juan."
The favorable weather meant that the search boats could cover a larger area after being hampered by high winds and high waves for much of the past few days, although the weather was expected to return on Thursday, Balbi said.
Around 30 boats and planes and 4,000 people from Argentina, the United States, Great Britain, Chile and Brazil have joined the search for the submarine, which last broadcast its location some 480 km (300 miles) from the coast.
The planes have covered about 500,000 square km (190,000 square miles) of the ocean's surface, but much of the area has not yet been tracked by the ships.
As part of the search operation on Wednesday, a Poseidon P-8 aircraft of the United States Navy left the Commander Espora base some 650 km south of Buenos Aires to try to detect the submarine through " sonobuoys ". buoys equipped with a sonar system that fall off planes, usually during the antisubmarine war.
In recent days, several possible signals, including sounds and flares, that have been detected have turned out to be false alarms. During the night, a British ship reported observing three orange and white flares, but they did not come from the ship, Balbi said.
The relatives of the crew members have met at a naval base in Mar del Plata, where the search is being coordinated.
& # 39; LOS 44 & # 39;
Argentines have been trapped by the search, and local newspapers place photographs on the cover of relatives of the crew members praying.  A man jogs in front of a banner with the colors of the Argentine national flag in support of the 44 crew members of the disappeared in the sea ARA San Juan submarine, placed on a fence at an Argentine naval base in Mar del Plata, Argentina November 22, 2017. The words on the banner read "We are with you." REUTERS / Marcos Brindicci
The case has dominated the discussion on social networks in Argentina, with the hashtags "The 44" (The 44) and (the naval spokesman) "Enrique Balbi" becoming current affairs on Twitter, has drawn comparisons with the most important rescue operation in the region, when 33 miners in northern Chile were rescued in 2010 after trapped for 69 days under land.
The submarine was heading from Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, to the coastal city of Mar del Plata, about 400 km (400 miles) south of Buenos Aires, when it reported an electrical malfunction shortly before of disappearing last week. . The submarine was launched in 1983 and underwent maintenance in 2008 in Argentina.
Military leaders informed President Mauricio Macri about the search operation on Tuesday. The first signs of frustration with the government over the missing submarine emerged on Tuesday night, when the newspaper Perfil published online the video of a tense meeting between Macri and his relatives.
"It is practically a suicide to send them to something that is so old," said the wife of one of the sailors.
The armed forces of Argentina have worked with old equipment and lack of investment in the decades following the bloody military dictatorship of 1976-1983. The country's army was defeated by British forces in a brief 1982 war over the disputed Falkland Islands, known as Las Malvinas in Argentina.
In Mar del Plata, the locals hung Argentine flags blue sky and white, with messages inscribed as "ARA San Juan, the world is with you" on the wire fence outside the naval base.
"We are desperate," said resident Leandro Gamarra outside the base. "We want them to appear."
Additional reporting by Magali Cervantes at the base of Commander Espora; Written by Luc Cohen; Edition by Frances Kerry