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50th anniversary of a dream trip gone wrong

The crossing to Australia was an emotional time for the 1,100 passengers -169 of them Maltese - on the Norwegian migrant ship, the Skaubryn. They were excited about the opportunities in their new homes, tearful about the lives they had left behind. And for many of them, it was also a frightening experience, their first long sea journey.

Who could have imagined that it would end in disaster? On March 31, 1958, the Skaubryn caught fire in the Indian Ocean and issued an SOS at 11.30 p.m.

Fate was kind. There was a vessel nearby, the City of Sydney, which rushed to assist the stricken vessel, getting there within two hours and saving all the passengers and 180 crew. It took four terrifying hours to get all of them off the burning ship. It later transferred the survivors to a liner, the Roma, which dropped them off in Aden, where they stayed till transport could be organised to Australia.

On board with the migrants was Fr Spiru Tabone, now nearly 90, who was asked to accompany the Maltese contingent as their spiritual advisor by Fr Philip Calleja, head of the Emigrants' Commission.

"He knew that I yearned to go to Australia to see my family - although my roots in Malta were too deep to tempt me to emigrate. No one else was keen so I got the opportunity," Fr Tabone said, his cloudy eyes turned away, as though trying to glimpse his faded memories.

"I had travelled before but never to Australia. I was not afraid of the sea. The sea was very rough at times but that is what you have to expect. I was brought up in Kalkara, near the sea so I know its fury."

He paused for a long time, his hands shaking slightly, trying to remember life on board.

"My duties on board were not too onerous. All I used to have to do was celebrate Mass, really. I tended to keep to myself. I did not socialise very much," he said.

It is not clear whether he has forgotten the dramatic events of 50 years ago - or whether he prefers not to remember them. He talks about that night without any emotion.

"I remember that we were all woken up by the crew. We were in the middle of nowhere. We were taken off the boat onto the City of Sydney. I don't remember being scared. We were not even aware of the fire until we left the vessel," he shrugged.

They were lucky to escape with their lives but once the survivors got over their shock - and gratitude at being alive - they had to face the grim reality that they had lost everything they owned. They arrived in Australia with nothing but the clothes in which they stood. The stories in the newspapers of the time captured the extent of the human drama: One of the survivors was Carmel Calleja, who had left Gudja with his wife and 10 children. They arrived without even a toy between them.

The plight of the Skaubryn survivors touched many hearts. The Maltese government promptly sent £50 to each survivor aged over 20, £25 to those aged between 14 and 20, and £10 to those under 14. The Australian government helped all the survivors, providing AS$20,000 in all, while other philanthropic organisations also pitched in with food, clothes and money.

It was not only physical goods they need but also spiritual support. The Emigrants' Commission, through Mgr Calleja, organised recording sessions so that relatives in Malta could send messages to Australia, also keeping those in Malta up to date with what was happening there.

The Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (ICEDM) organised a free cable for each family as well as free aerogram forms to be sent to relatives. It also organised free transportation from Germany of personal belongings from relatives and friends.

Fr Tabone stayed in Australia until June 1958, returning on the MS Flaminia, much against his better wishes....

"I was obviously reluctant to travel by ship again and I asked to return by air but the ICEM could not accommodate my request as the contract only provided passage by air. I had no choice...

"I have been back to Australia eight times since then to visit my siblings ... but always by air," he smiled.

Once back in Malta, Fr Tabone went back to parish work. The years sped by, one of the highlights being a visit to Rome in 1996 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the ordination of Pope John Paul II, during which the Pope invited other priests from around the world ordained in 1946.

He has been at the Dar Tal-Kleru in Birkirkara for over a decade. He politely ends the interview, apologising that he was not able to remember more and ambles back to the chapel, where a shaft of sunlight pierces the silence. A door opens and shuts and the aroma of food wafts down the corridor.

Life goes on.

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