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Updated: Patrol boat explosion tragedy recalled

Ceremony brings back sad memories

Video: Paul Spiteri Lucas.

The Armed Forces of Malta and the Police are this morning recalling the tragedy, 25 years ago today, when seven services personnel died in a fireworks explosion on a patrol boat off Comino.

Five soldiers and two policemen died when illegal fireworks which were about to be dumped into the sea exploded on the bow of the small patrol boat C-23. The sole survivor, despite being badly injured, managed to beach the craft on Comino.

The incident – the worst peace-time tragedy suffered by Maltese services personnel - claimed the life of Bombardier Joseph Pace, 36 of Santa Venera, Gunner William Simpson, 36 of Lija, Private Anthony Vella, 20 of Ghajnsielem, Gozo, Police Sergeant Saviour Muscat, 30 of Birkirkara, and Police Constable Joseph Hare, 24 of Sliema. Also lost were Bombardier Francis Borg, 36 of Hamrun and 27-year-old Private Anthony Farrugia of Zejtun, whose remains were never found.

This morning’s ceremony, at Haywharf, the AFM Maritime Squadron base, includes Mass, the unveiling of a new memorial to replace a small one built soon after the event and commemorative speech by the Commander of the AFM, Brig, Carmel Vassallo. The Last Post will be sounded and a minute's silence will be observed.

The fireworks had been seized the previous day in the limits of Zabbar and were being carried on the deck of the patrol boat when the sudden explosion occurred. The cause was never conclusively established, although it is thought to have been a spark caused when a hatch was closed.

Private Emmanuel Montesin, 21 of Paola, survived the blast and managed to steer the patrol boat to Comino, where the alarm was raised.

The following day, September 8, was declared a Day of National Mourning.

The flag-draped coffins were carried together in a large military funeral attended by thousands of people and led by a Guard of Honour of what was then the Task Force.

The patrol boat, now P-23, was one of two Swift class vessels which had been donated to Malta in the early 1970s to form a new Maritime Squadron. It had its bow rebuilt at Manoel Island Yacht Yard and is still on active duty.

Fireworks have since no longer been carried on patrol boats. They are carried on towed barges.

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