Relatives of the 44 crewmembers aboard Argentina's missing submarine erupted in a welter of anger and grief Thursday after the navy released news of an explosion onboard, effectively ending hopes of survival.
Eight days after the last reported communication from the submarine, a navy spokesman said an unusual noise detected near the sub's last known position was likely an explosion.
Itati Leguizamon, wife of sonar operator German Suarez, said that days of false hopes had left the families feeling manipulated by the navy which had repeatedly retained information about the crew's fate.
"I feel cheated. How do they know it just now? They are perverse and they manipulated us!" said Leguizamon, a lawyer.
"They don't tell us they're dead, but they tell us that the submarine is at lying at a depth of 3,000 meters. What can you understand from that?"
In the parking lot of the base, some of the relatives hugged, others slumped to the ground and cried inconsolably. Uniformed sailors at the base wept.
One woman, a relative of a crewmember, approached a group of journalists but broke down in tears before she could say a word.
- Relatives' vigil -
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 Argentine flags and banners.
Families of the crew, some from distant parts of Argentina, have been keeping vigil here since a multinational air and sea search began last Thursday.
Leguizamon described how navy officers broke the news of the explosion to the families.
"They asked most of the people to leave and just close family members to stay," she said.
"When they heard the news they all exploded in there, they jumped on them and they had to stop reading their statement. People became very aggressive."
"They are going to continue looking for it, because they have an obligation to do so," she said.
"They launched a search because it looks good! Because they sent shit out there to sail!
"They already had problems in 2014, because it couldn't surface. Now I don't care if everything is known, he's not here anymore," she said, referring to her husband.
The German-built submarine was launched in 1983 and underwent a refit to extend its life from 2007-2014.
Suarez, she said, "was prepared for death. He always went to confession and was at peace. He was ready."
- 'They're all dead' -
"I've just learned that I'm a widow," said Jessica Gopar, wife Fernando Santilli, an electrician aboard the sub, before bursting into tears.
After hearing the news of an explosion on board, her first reaction was: "They're all dead! It's the first thing I thought."
"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.
"He was my great love, we were going out for seven years, married for six, 13 years together and now we have a son, Stefano.
"How do I tell my son that he is left without a father," said Gopar, who on Wednesday posted an emotional Facebook message to her husband saying that her one-year old had just learned to say "Dad."
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."
"I'm the son of a tactical diver. The tragedy hits close.
"I know all the crew by their faces."
Outside the base, Hugo Daniel, 43, stopped as he was passing by on his bicycle.
Like the rest of the nation, he had been following the unfolding tragedy over the past week.
"It's a tragedy that will go down in history," he said. "Machines fail. The people who were on the submarine knew the risks."
Referring to the strained relationship between many Argentines and their military, he said that during the 1976-83 dictatorship "they used to torture people here," pointing to a plaque on the fence that notes it was once a "clandestine detention center."
© 2017 AFP