The 1948 Ħondoq ir-Rummien tragedy
On Saturday, October 30, 1948, the Gozo ferry MV Banċinu made the 1.15pm trip from Mġarr, Gozo. In view of the strong southwesterly winds the ferry proceeded to St Paul’s Bay, instead of landing passengers at the usual berth in Marfa.
The 4.30pm trip from Marfa was cancelled as the crossing between Mġarr and St Paul’s Bay took about 75 minutes either way. Moreover, it took more time to embark and disembark passengers at St Paul’s Bay as the boat did not moor alongside the quay.
The police were informed of these ferry arrangements. However, at about 3.30pm some passengers who intended crossing to Gozo on the 4.30pm trip had already boarded the bus leaving Valletta for Marfa.
When they were informed that the Banċinu trip was being cancelled, one of the passengers said he had phoned Mariano Xuereb, the manager of the Marfa-Mġarr Transport, and inquired about the cancellation. Xuereb replied that he was willing to provide a luzzu (fishing boat) for the stranded passengers at Marfa, provided Banċinu arrived at Mġarr before 5pm.
On that day Police Constable Mikiel Azzopardi, who was stationed in Gozo, had escorted four people to be detained at Corradino Prison as they had fines converted into detention by the Gozo Court. From Marfa, Azzopardi went to the police headquarters at Fleur-de-Lys, Birkirkara, and later boarded the bus to Marfa.
Azzopardi was not aware of the ferry trip’s cancellation and when he was told of the arrangements he promised the other passengers he would look into the matter.
When the bus arrived at Mellieħa at about 4.35pm Azzopardi phoned Sergeant S. Galea, who was on duty at Mġarr, Gozo, to confirm that the luzzu was being sent. However, he was told that the manager of the Marfa-Mġarr Transport had changed his mind and the luzzu was not being sent to pick up the stranded passengers.
Disappointed at the manager’s decision, Azzopardi phoned Superintendent Joseph Depiro who was in charge of the Gozo Police District, and requested him to remedy the situation. Supt Depiro obliged and he phoned Sgt Galea and told him to make arrangements to pick up PC Azzopardi and the others. Among the stranded passengers was Karmnu Camilleri, a Gozitan police constable stationed at Tarxien and who was engaged to be married.
Salvu Refalo and Karmnu Grima agreed to do the trip and proceeded to Marfa where they found 24 men and a woman at the quay, many more people than they had expected. In view of the number of passengers Refalo and Grima insisted on making two trips, but the passengers protested and boarded the luzzu.
Between Malta and Comino the sea was calm; however, when the luzzu passed Comino the sea became rougher because of the direction the wind was blowing.
The coxswain therefore advised the passengers it would be better to proceed to Ħondoq ir-Rummien creek instead of Mġarr.
Twenty-one passengers insisted on continuing to Mġarr, even though the boat was being buffeted by the waves. Meanwhile Leli Camilleri from Żurrieq, who was a member of the Society of Christian Doctrine (MUSEUM), invited the passengers to pray and started reciting the Rosary.
As the luzzu was approaching Mġarr it could not take any more pounding and it capsised near Il-Ġolf taċ-Ċawl shortly after 8pm. Karmnu Attard, the youngest passenger, swam against the rough sea to reach the shore and was carried ashore by a wave, then washed back. When he finally succeeded in scrambling ashore, he made his way to the call office at Qala to inform the Mġarr police of his fellow passengers’ plight.
On his way to Qala, Attard covered himself with a sack which he found in a boat on the seashore at Ħondoq ir-Rummien. The youth, who used to work in a restaurant at Marsa Wharf, discovered that he had lost £3 from his trouser pocket while swimming.
The following day, Attard visited Ta’ Pinu Sanctuary and left his golden ring at the sanctuary as an ex-voto offering to Our Lady for saving his life. In a statement he made to the police, Attard said most of the passengers sat on the poop of the luzzu and only two had wanted to continue to Mġarr. He also said that water was entering the boat and when the waves struck, the passengers panicked and the vessel capsised about 50 metres from shore.
When the police were informed about the tragedy, all available personnel stationed in Gozo under the direction of Supt Depiro, as well as several Gozitans who gathered at Mġarr Harbour, were summoned to action. Royal Navy and Royal Air Force personnel were requested to help and the destroyer Cheviot and a torpedo recovery boat, together with an RAF launch, sped to Ħondoq ir-Rummien.
Meanwhile, it was confirmed that Michael Buttigieg of Nadur, Pawlu Zammit of Xagħra, and Ċikku Ġauci had swam safely ashore. After resting for a long time on the Blata taċ-Ċawl, Zammit was hoisted up the cliff by his two brothers and another man. The survivors were later taken to the Gozo Hospital and made statements to the police about the incident.
When the luzzu was lifted from the seabed and drawn ashore, a suitcase containing some items was found. Attard said the suitcase belonged to PC Azzopardi. Giuseppe Caruana, the technical expert appointed by Magistrate Giovanni Gouder, who conducted the inquiry, said the safety load had been amply exceeded — not more than 13 passengers should have been taken aboard.
In a statement issued on November 1, the police said that 16 persons who had been on the luzzu were still unaccounted for and that seven corpses had been recovered from the sea.
The missing bodies were recovered in the following days after searches by RAF aircraft, and naval and police vessels. Some bodies were recovered off Fomm ir-Riħ on the western side of Malta six days after the tragedy.
Post mortem examinations revealed that nearly all the victims died from asphyxia due to suffocation caused by water entering the lungs. Some other victims had died as a result of cerebral contusions and shock.
Those who lost their lives were:
Duminku Attard, Karmnu Azzopardi, Mikiel Azzopardi, Rita Buttiġieg, Salvu Buttigieg, Manwel Camilleri, Ġorġ Curmi, Ġużeppi Dingli, Ġużeppi Gatt, Ġorġ Galea, Karmnu Grima, Ġanni Mercieca, Wistin Magro, Grezzju Magro, Ċikku Portelli, Salvu Refalo, Baskal Sammut, Karmnu Spiteri, Manwel Sultana, Manwel Vella, Pawlu Vella, Ġużeppi Scicluna and Manwel Zammit.
The first funeral was held on November 3. The funeral cortege of seven recovered bodies left the Gozo Central Hospital at about 8.30am for the Cathedral in Victorira, where the Bishop of Gozo, Mgr Giuseppe Pace, celebrated Mass. The cortege was led by the Cathedral Chapter, relatives of the victims, a representative of the Governor, Prime Minister Paul Boffa, the Commissioner for Gozo, Edgar Montanaro, Gozitan Members of the Legislative Assembly, the collegiate chapters of Għarb, Nadur and Xagħra, the College of Parish Priests and other members of the clergy. A Royal Air Force and a Malta Police detachment also formed part of the cortege.
The funeral of Emmanuel Camilleri took place on November 4 at 4 pm in Żurrieq. The pallbearers were MUSEUM members. Rev. Professor Peter Paul Saydon led the cortege, which included family members, workmates, representatives of the St Catherine Band Club and members of the Catholic Action.
Condolences were sent to the families of the deceased by the Governor, Sir Francis Douglas, Dr Boffa, Dr Enrico Mizzi, leader of the Nationalist Party, and Prof. Giuseppe Hyzler, leader of the Democratic Action Party.
A committee was set up by the Prime Minister to raise funds for the dependants and other members of the victims’ families. The committee was chaired by Lt. Colonel Victor Vella, and Maurice Bonello was appointed secretary. It was proposed to hold fund-raising activities and that the funds collected were to be forwarded to Mr Bonello or the Commissioner for Gozo.
Another committee chaired by the Prime Minister was appointed to examine the inquiring magistrate’s report and to recommend to the government what action should be taken. The members of the committee were Dr Joseph Cassar, Dr Mizzi, Prof. Hyzler, Dr Francesco Masini, Dr Joseph Miceli and Henry Jones, all members of the Legislative Assembly.
The select committee held four meetings and during the first meeting Dr Boffa informed the committee that he had received an anonymous letter containing certain allegations against the police regarding their actions during the night of the tragedy. For this reason two witnesses were heard in connection with this letter, however, the committee unanimously decided that the allegations were baseless.
In their report dated December 12, 1949, 13 months after the tragedy, the chairman and five committee members stated that they were fully satisfied that the inquiry held by Magistrate Gouder was exhaustive and that there was no reason for recommending further inquiries.
The committee recommended that the regulations regarding the transport of passengers in boats be rigidly enforced and no unauthorised boats should be allowed to carry passengers. Moreover, carrying more than the authorised number of passengers was not permitted.
However, the other committee member, Mr Jones, disagreed and in a separate report demanded further investigations to establish why the last trip was not performed on the day in question.
He also questioned why the MV Banċinu landed the passengers at St Paul’s Bay instead of Marfa on the day under review. Mr Jones claimed that the master’s interest in proceeding to St Paul’s Bay on the 1.15pm trip “would lie in the fact that he thus misses the last trip and is able to leave his boat earlier than usual”.