MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina — The Argentine Navy said Thursday that a catastrophic explosion was recorded in the area where a submarine went missing Nov. 15, raising fears that the 44-member crew has perished.
The nature of the explosion, which was described as a "anomalous, short, violent" event, was not immediately clear, but the disclosure dampened the hopes of a multinational team of rescuers searching for the vessel.
Capt. Enrique Balbi, a Navy spokesman, said an international search team would continue the effort to look for the vessel, the ARA San Juan.
"Until we don't have certainty we're going to carry on the search effort," he said Wednesday morning.
Upon hearing the news, relatives and sailors at the naval base here embraced, and many broke down crying.
Experts have said that if the ARA San Juan was intact but submerged, its crew might have only enough oxygen to last seven to 10 days.
The U.S. Navy, which is helping with the search, shared the information about the catastrophic explosion with the Argentines on Wednesday, according to Balbi.
In addition, the International Atomic Energy Agency — a Vienna-based organization that monitors seismic activity for signs of nuclear tests — supplied corroborating information about the explosion, via the Argentine ambassador in Austria, on Thursday morning.
After analyzing the two pieces of information, the Argentine Navy broke the news initially to the relatives and minutes later to journalists assembled at a base in the resort city of Mar del Plata.
The Argentine submarine was not armed with nuclear weapons, and the explosion was not believed to have involved a nuclear weapon, Balbi said.
He said there was no way of knowing what caused the accident.
"Unfortunately we don't have that information: what may have been the cause in that location, on that day, of an event of these characteristics," Balbi said.
The news Thursday followed a string of reports that had raised and then dashed the hopes of the survivors' families.
They included a report about satellite phone calls made from the submarine — which turned out to turned out to be false — and recordings of sounds that were described in press reports as possibly coming from sailors banging on the hull of the vessel to alert rescuers. That, too, turned out to be unfounded.