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Simshar tragedy: Evidence gives credence to survivor's account, but doubts remain

A preliminary inquiry relating to the disappearance of the fishing boat Simshar in July year has lent credence to the account of sole survivor Simon Bugeja. The inquiry was tabled in Parliament this evening.

Four people died during the ill-fated fishing trip, including Mr Bugeja's 11-year-old son Theo, his 61-year-old father Carmelo, Noel Carabott, 33, and Somali national Abdulrahman Gedi, 21.

The investigation was conducted by Dr Ann Fenech, who said she had found that there were limited pieces of evidence which went towards corroborating some of what the sole survivor stated.

Dr Fenech said it could not be said with any degree of certainty that the events which led to the Simshar (officially the Samsher) tragedy as explained by Mr Bugeja actually took place in the way they did.

"Having said that... there are limited pieces of independent evidence which would go towards corroborating some of what the witness stated," Dr Fenech said.

The pieces of evidence were:

Severe chest and back burns on the body of one of the dead fishermen - Abdulrahman Gedi - which indicated that a fire or explosion did occur;

The presenceof skin tissue on the raft from which Mr Bugeja was rescued, supporting his evidence that his son Theo spent sufficient time on the raft to have left pieces of skin tissue behind, which could be explained by the constant rubbing and pressure of the body against the raft;

Other evidence included the discovery of the bodies, and evidence by the doctors who examined Mr Bugeja in hospital who said that his general condition and saline levels were extraordinarily high, consistent with having been without water or fluid for an unusually long period of time.

"Moreover, his injuries on his back and legs were consistent with someone who had been rubbing against an object such as a raft for a very long period of time."

Furthermore, Dr Fenech said the bodies of the deceased exhibited signs of damage or injury which were competible with a blast. However, the examining doctor, Dr Ali, was very careful to underline that the injuries could also have been the result of other causes.

"The fact that little of what the witness (Simon Bugeja) stated has been corroborated by other independent evidence does not mean that one can legitimately put to doubt the rest of what he said," Dr Fenech said.

She said that while there were four areas which threw some doubt on Mr Bugeja's recollections, she had not come across any evidence which could seriously challenge the most important parts of the evidence given by Simon Bugeja.

These important parts were: an explosion that took place while they were out at sea; a fire that ensued as a result of which the boat was totally consumed by a fire; all the persons on board ended up in the sea; all the persons except Simon Bugeja started to pass away one by one; and there was no foul play causing casualty either by anyone on board or any other third party."

Dr Fenech said the four areas which threw some doubts on Mr Bugeja's account related to the explosion followed by the fire, his account that none of the other persons with him were injured during the explosion and fire, his account on the duration of the fire and what happened to the life raft during or after the explosion.

Mr Bugeja in the first interview had said that as soon as he smelt a strange smell and saw the smoke coming from the engine room, he called his father, Abdul and Noel from downstairs and went to the engine room to disconnect the fuel. As soon as they all came up from below there was an explosion which threw them into the water and a fire followed. Later, he said that the explosion threw them to the front of the boat from where he tried to climb to the bridge to get the life raft but he did not find it as it was blown away. Then a second explosion threw them all into the sea.

As for the other areas of inconsistency, it had been established that one of the other victims did suffer injuries as a result of the fire; the fire, according to the experts, could not have lasted more than two-and-a-half hours rather than six hours as stated by Mr Bugeja; and Mr Bugeja first told his rescuers that he could not use the life raft because he could not open it, but later he said the life raft was thrown away.

Dr Fenech said that during the conduct of her investigation she came across many rumours which she had to discard for lack of evidence.

"I have heard rumours of the Simshar having been attacked by foreign fishermen, who shot at the vessel repeatedly, leading to an explosion on board. I have heard rumours about foreign fishermen with whom Simon Bugeja previously had arguments, attacking the boat, throwing all the persons off the boat into the sea and taking the boat; I have heard rumours about the same fishermen throwing the four adults into the sea and going off with the vessel and the boy; I have heard rumours of explosives on board the vessel which accidentally took off, causing the casualty - In the 11 months of the inquiry I have come across no evidence that would suggest any of the above are anything more than unsubstantiated rumour," Dr Fenech said.

Dr Fenech said that given the costs involved, she did not believe that embarking on a seabed search for the Simshar would produce a useful result.

The full report can be seen at:

http://doi.gov.mt/EN/press_releases/2009/06/pr1118a.pdf

See also:

http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090630/local/bugeja-says-he-did-not-know-how-to-operate-simshar-safety-equipment

http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090630/local/what-caused-the-simshar-explosion

http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090630/local/simshar-lack-of-coordination-in-search-efforts

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