The captain of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano held a dramatic, televised news conference tonight describing the terror experienced by the crew of 1,042 men after his ship was sunk by British torpedoes Sunday.
It took Argentine rescuers 24 hours to locate the tiny life rafts in the southern ocean, Capt. Hector Elias Bonzo said, while a 72-miles-per-hour wind whipped up 18-foot waves during a fierce storm. Some of the sailors froze to death in the freezing weather. So far, about 640 men have been saved, and rescue efforts are still continuing, he said. Argentine sources believe at least 200 died, some of them burned to death when the torpedoes exploded and set fire to the ship.
Although Britain said the Belgrano had been threatening its ships, the captain said no British surface vessels were in the area before the attack.
Despite reports that the American-built Belgrano was outfitted with Seacat surface-to-air missiles, Bonzo denied his ship was carrying any missiles.
"We were of no danger to any surface ship or submarine, not to mention a nuclear submarine," he told more than 300 Argentine and foreign reporters in a hotel auditorium.
In grave tones, the stocky, balding officer, dressed in his Navy uniform, and Defense Minister Amadeo Frugoli reaffirmed that the 44-year-old warship was 30 miles south of Britain's declared war zone "on an innocent course" toward the Argentine mainland. British torpedoes, he said, came from the south, indicating that the submarine that fired them was even farther outside the zone.
The first torpedo hit the engine room in the center of the ship at 4 p.m. Sunday and was followed within seconds by a second torpedo to the prow, Bonzo said. The engine room exploded, shutting off all electricity. Members of a "damage team" immediately assumed their positions and the rest of the crew dashed to the lifeboats, he added.
Within 20 minutes the Belgrano had lurched to a 21-degree angle, and Bonzo gave orders to abandon ship.
The explosion had created dense smoke and a column of fire through the center of the ship, burning men who were sleeping in two dormitories as well as those who were "buying cigarettes, drinking coffee with milk and playing chess" in the cafeteria, he said.
As many as a dozen severely burned victims have apparently been rescued, according to journalists who saw bandaged men carried out of a plane on stretchers two days ago in Puerto Belgrano.
Despite the explosion, the captain said the evacuation on the life rafts was "orderly and disciplined." Several men, including one who had suffered appendicitis and another with a fractured skull, were carried out of the infirmary, despite the dense fumes and severe heat. Sailors, burned by boiling oil, were rescued after receiving morphine.
Bonzo said he was the last to abandon ship at about 4:40 p.m. The ship then lurched to a 90 degree angle and "slowly, with the nobility of an old cruiser, turned over and sank," he said. As it sank at 5 o'clock, it sucked a tiny life raft under water.
By 9 o'clock, a furious storm had risen, which lasted throughout the following day, impeding rescue efforts.
The captain said he spent 33 hours on the sea before his rescue. Sailors on the life raft, he said, sang the Argentine national anthem during their ordeal.
Asked by a British reporter if he felt sympathy for the captain of the Sheffield, a British destroyer which was sunk by the Argentines Tuesday, the captain paused and, after asking the reporter his nationality, said, "It's not up to me to think of the sentiments of members of other navies. They have their own ways of acting and we have ours."
His response prompted a round of applause from Argentine reporters who wound up the press conference by shouting, Viva la Patria, "Long live the fatherland."