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Search for a missing submarine is stymied by new challenges: 20-foot waves and 50 mph winds

Argentina's defense ministry said it detected seven failed "satellite calls" Nov. 18, which officials believe came from a missing navy submarine. (Video: Reuters)

An international team of searchers trying to locate a vanished Argentine submarine and its 44 crew members is being stymied by an uncooperative ocean while potential leads fell through.

Twenty-foot waves and winds near 50 mph were battering more than a dozen search-and-rescue ships from the United States, Britain, Brazil and Chile traversing the area where the ARA San Juan went missing Wednesday off the coast of Patagonia, according to NPR.

The sour weather is not expected to calm for at least two days.

It's particularly frustrating because, if the San Juan has been unable to surface for nearly a week, its oxygen supply dwindles with every breath a sailor takes.

Authorities also said that seven signals that hit Argentine satellites over the weekend did not come from the missing sub, according to Reuters. The Argentine navy had been frustratingly unable to pinpoint the sub's location from the signals, which lasted between four and 36 seconds. They were initially believed to be failed attempts by the San Juan to make contact.

The Argentine navy has said that the San Juan has multiple ways of communicating, as well as ample food and oxygen. Its protocol is to surface if there’s a communications blackout, but there has been no sign of the sub on the Atlantic Ocean's surface.

“What we interpret is that there must have been a serious problem with the communications [infrastructure] or with the electrical supply, cables, antennae or other equipment,” navy spokesman Enrique Balbi said, according to the Associated Press.

Worried relatives gathered at the military base where the sub is housed over the weekend, hoping to hear updates.

“We are praying to God and asking that all Argentines help us to pray that they keep navigating and that they can be found,” Claudio Rodriguez, the brother of one of the crew members, told the local Todo Noticias TV channel, according to the AP. “We have faith that it’s only a loss of communications.”

But on Monday, those hopes began to dwindle with more bad news. The Navy dismissed what was one a promising lead — that satellite phone calls recorded near the vessel Saturday were from San Juan, as Argentine officials had claimed, according to the New York Times. The news caused at least five women at the base to become physically ill.

“There was a peak of hope when they heard about the signals that then led to increased anxiety Monday morning,” Enrique Stein, a 79-year-old psychiatrist who has been at the base, told the Times. “But even as anxiety is growing, they are all helping each other stay strong.”

Navy also said it recorded a sound near the path the submarine would have taken to return home, about 160 miles from shore, but later said it was not from the submarine, according to the Times.

News of the stricken submarine even reached the Vatican. Pope Francis, a native of Argentina and the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, offered his “fervent prayers for the 44 officers aboard the ARA San Juan” in a message released on his behalf Saturday by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, according to CNN. Francis “asks that his closeness be conveyed to their families and to the military and civil authorities of the country in these difficult moments.”

Those family members and the Argentine government were facing a cruel fact of submarine life. The vessels are often among a country’s most expensive and complex military assets — and, during accidents or times of crisis, the most vulnerable.

Several submarines have vanished over the years, leaving mysteries that have lasted decades.

On May 27, 1968, the USS Scorpion failed to return to port, sinking 11,220 feet beneath the Atlantic Ocean along with its 99 crew members and two nuclear torpedoes, according to USA Today. A Navy inquiry concluded that the cause of the sinking “cannot be definitively ascertained.” The cause remains fuzzy to this day.

Theories abound, of course: A torpedo self-fired into the ship, destroying it from the inside, or a battery exploded, inflicting critical damage. The Navy has routinely tested the water around the ship for radioactivity, according to USA Today, but has rejected a proposal by civilian marine disaster experts to investigate the wreckage.

In August 2000, the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk suddenly sank during a planned and closely monitored military exercise, killing all 188 sailors aboard, according to the New York Times. It was hours before the Russian government even knew something was amiss.

The most likely explanation was that fuel in a torpedo detonated, setting off a chain reaction in a sub once deemed unsinkable. The Russians have said the Kursk used an outdated and unstable hydrogen peroxide propellant.

Conspiracy theories emerged, and at least one real-life horror story was verified: Not all of the sailors died in the initial blast, according to the New York Times.

For hours, some fought fruitlessly to survive.

“13:15,” Lt. Capt. Dimitri Kolesnikov, the commander of the turbine room, wrote, noting the military time. “All personnel from compartments six, seven and eight moved to the ninth. There are 23 of us here. We have made this decision as a result of the accident. None of us can get out.”

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