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Owner found alive, two bodies recovered

The only survivor of the fishing tragedy, Simon Bugeja transported to Mater Dei Hospital by an Italian helicopter, yesterday. Photo: Jason Borg

The only survivor of the fishing tragedy, Simon Bugeja transported to Mater Dei Hospital by an Italian helicopter, yesterday. Photo: Jason Borg

While the whole of Malta held its breath during the past week over the fate of four fishermen and an 11-year-old boy, a drama was being enacted out at sea that would scare the daylights out of anyone, even if it were only a fictitious account - which it wasn't.

Ray Bugeja, President of the Fisheries Cooperative and owner of the trawler Grecale last night told The Times how Simon Bugeja, in his late 30s, managed to keep his wits about him to try to save his crew including his son, Teo,11, after the vessel they were on, the Simshar, was blown apart following an explosion in the engine room.

Simon Bugeja recounted this horrific ordeal to Mark Bugeja, captain of the trawler Grecale. Mr Bugeja was found by the Grecale and was flown to Mater Dei Hospital last night after he was found alive yesterday at about 7.45 p.m., having spent eight days at sea.

While they were on their way back to Malta Thursday week, the crew heard a bang in one of the engines and when Simon went down to check, an explosion ripped the boat apart and the crew ended up in the water.

The first thing Mr Bugeja tried to do was to inflate a life raft, but for some reason the raft did not inflate.

Mr Bugeja then started to put together the pieces of polystyrene (jablo) they had in a sack and which they used to keep the long lines they were using to catch swordfish afloat, and started to fashion a raft holding the pieces of jablo together with rope.

The raft was only several centimetres above the water.

Floating as best they could they hoped help would soon be around. On Saturday, however, the Eritrean member of the crew died while the next member to lose his life was Noel Carabott who died on Sunday. On Monday, Mr Bugeja's father passed away and Simon tied pieces of polystyrene to his hands hoping against hope that he would be found afloat. They suffered from hypothermia.

"This morning (Friday) Teo was still alive although completely exhausted. At one point a helicopter seemed to have spotted us because it came down quite close to the water and I started waving a piece of cloth to the crew and calling in Maltese 'We are Maltese, we are Europeans' but the helicopter - I don't know what nationality it was - just flew on," Simon Bugeja recounted to Mark Bugeja as told to this newspaper by Ray Bugeja.

At one point, the boy, Teo slipped off the raft lifeless into the water and his father, who could barely move as his physical strength was at its lowest ebb could not do anything to save him. The other crew members had succumbed also because they had drunk seawater, something Simon Bugeja had cautioned them against.

Ray Bugeja said that he had instructed the captain of the Grecale to go out and search for the missing crew last Monday and other boats left Marsaxlokk where the missing crew were based. In fact, it was the three boats, Laura, Grecale and San Ġorg that found the two bodies and Simon Bugeja.

The bodies and the survivor were found about 30 miles from the spot where the explosion occurred.

"Simon Bugeja had terrific courage urging the others to hang on," Ray Bugeja said.

When the crew of the Grecale spotted Simon Bugeja they communicated the coordinates to the Armed Forces of Malta who immediately deployed a helicopter belonging to the Italian Military Mission in Malta, which flew Mr Bugeja to hospital.

Earlier, the bodies of his father, Karmenu, in his 60s, and Noel Carabott, 33, were found at sea.

The first body to be recovered by the Armed Forces of Malta on Thursday night was that of Mr Carabott.

Mr Bugeja's corpse was spotted by fishermen floating with two pieces of polystyrene (jablo) tied to his hands yesterday afternoon.

A post mortem held at Mater Dei Hospital mortuary on Mr Carabott yesterday morning showed that the fisherman had died of "asphyxia due to drowning".

The body was identified by Mr Carabott's wife. The AFM were alerted and a patrol boat went over to the spot indicated. The body was recovered at about 2 a.m. yesterday. It was taken to Haywharf and then to hospital.

The police said the corpse was in an advanced stage of decomposition and had no identification documents. The sources said there was no life jacket on the body.

The sources added that the corpse had a tattoo identical to the one Mr Carabott had. There was also a bracelet identical to one owned by Mr Carabott.

Karmenu (Carmelo) Bugeja's body was found by fishermen on board the fishing vessel San Ġorġ about five nautical miles from where Mr Carabott's corpse was found.

As soon as the crew of the San Ġorġ spotted the body they radioed the news to the AFM and a helicopter and a patrol boat were deployed to the area. The body was landed at Haywharf late at night.

The sources said the fishermen who found the second body immediately identified it as that of Karmenu Bugeja.

The fishermen had left Marsaxlokk on a swordfish fishing trip on July 14, a Monday, and had to return four days later on Friday, but did not. A report was filed by relatives on Saturday.

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