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On the ARA San Juan

[Traducción al castellano en camino!]

This week, I wrote an article for the Buenos Aires Times to commemorate the first anniversary of the sinking of the ARA San Juan ("All at sea: one year on from the ARA San Juan tragedy.") I'll provide some context below, but I turned off my phone and disconnected early as usual for a Friday and woke up this morning to a message from my editor that the ARA San Juan had been found, one year and one day after it disappeared.

The reason why I feel compelled to write about this right now is because after talking to ARA San Juan family members and looking into what this past year has held for them, I would want my readers to look beyond "Ah, how nice that they get closure now," even though it's true. This is Coriolismo, after all.


Here's an excerpt from my article. No, my idea isn't to just plug it, but should you want more detail on all this, you can read read my article on the anniversary here.

"On November 15, the TR-1700 class Argentine submarine ARA San Juan disappeared returning to its base in Mar del Plata from a routine military exercise in the southern port of Ushuaia.Its last transmission was at 7.30am that very morning. Its commander, Pedro Martín Fernández, reported that a short circuit in the submarine’s batteries had caused a small fire on board, but that the crew were well. After being ordered to return to base, the line fell silent.

International support flooded in. Thirteen countries participated in a frantic search for the San Juan and its crew, with over 4,000 personnel probing over 500,000 square kilometres of the South Atlantic. Then came the news that the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organisation had detected a “hydro-acoustic anomaly” consistent with an explosion two hours after that last transmission, just 30 nautical miles north. This, according to the Navy and experts, could have been the sound of the submarine imploding."

What I wasn't so aware of before writing this article was that there are three different investigations into what happened with the ARA San Juan and neither of them have gone very far at all. There's a Judicial criminal investigation, a Legislative investigation in the form of a Bicameral Commission and an Executive investigation with three submarine experts (including the father of one of the ARA San Juan's crew members)

I interviewed two relatives of different crew members and what struck me, beyond their grief and uncertainty, was how alone they felt when it came to the government, the Navy, the investigations and particularly the president. Before the one-year ceremony, President Mauricio Macri hadn't talked about it since March 1st. The Navy has been fiercely criticised the world over because of how they handled the situation (and their communications). The judicial investigation is painfully slow, the Bicameral Commission hasn't made much of a dent legislatively and the families were in constant fear of the search being cancelled.

Although I can appreciate how hard this type of search and investigations can be, I hadn't realised how much of a struggle the families had to go through just to keep the search going.

Luis Tagliapietra aboard the Seabed Constructor

The father of a Sub-Lieutenant, told me that they only felt supported by the Argentine population, but that it wasn't enough. I could only talk to him through WhatsApp voice messages because he was on the high seas, aboard the search vessel looking for the ARA San Juan. I find myself wondering this morning how he felt when they actually found it after so many false alarms.

As for the company that just found the submarine, Ocean Infinity, it almost left the search before completing its 60-day contract: it's a very new company in underwater exploration and also searched for the MH370 in Malaysia. Now, on the very last day of the search, they find the submarine. I haven't seen confirmation as to where they found it but the company had conceded to search in an area where "banging sounds" had reportedly been heard on their way to their next venture. This was after, once again, pressure from the families.

My thoughts

First, here are photos sent to me by the family members I interviewed. I have to admit that I hadn't seen many pictures of the ARA San Juan crew members before this, either.

Sub-Lieutenant Alejandro Tagliapietra

Alejandro (left) was 27 when the submarine sank. His father, Luis, is a lawyer and quickly had to learn everything about submarines, the navy, maritime technicalities and underwater exploration before heading out to sea. He sent me the photo from the search vessel and wears Alejandro's Navy graduation ring.

Petty Officer Celso Oscar Vallejos

Celso (right) and his sister, Marta, who sent me this photo. His father was also in the navy and Celso would accompany him from an early age. Marta remembers the last time she saw him vividly and told me she wanted the world to remember his smile.

In the article I wrote about how the initial search being called off in December 2017 was just the beginning for these families. After looking into it and speaking to them, I realise that finding the submarine is just another beginning, another door they have to go through to a different stage of grief and investigation.

Yes, the submarine's been found, but we still don't know what happened. It's early on, of course, we don't even know if the submarine can be brought to the surface for examination but if the way the three separate investigations have been carried out (and in some cases, fought between each other) is any indication of the future, it's not promising.

And yes, the discovery of the submarine means that there's a chance for closure but it should be remembered that for many families, their grieving period starts now. One of the relatives I spoke to had lost her brother and told me that until the submarine was found, both she and the rest of her family believed that he would come back. This was heartbreaking and I can only imagine how she's feeling now having to accept that he is no longer with us.

Basically, I hope for two things: one, that the institutions involved in the search and the overlapping investigations don't start bragging about their work or taking credit. The reality is that without the constant pressure of the families to keep the search alive, this would not have happened. That's the second thing: that we not forget the additional strain that these bereaved families had to go through. Not only that, that we accompany them by having more sympathy than "Ah, well, that's nice for them."

I know this exercise of reading an entire blog post driving home how bad it's been for these families on top of the news might be a little "much," but if you've made it this far, thank you. They deserve the time you've taken.

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