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Unfaded memories of Black Monday

On October 15, 1979, Socialist thugs went on a rampage, burning down The Times building in Valletta before ransacking Eddie Fenech Adami's home in Birkirkara. Herman Grech and Ariadne Massa spoke to some of those who experienced the day that came to be known as Black Monday.

Victor Aquilina

Thirty years on, the arson attack on Strickland House is as fresh in my mind as ever. Besides being an assistant editor, I was also secretary of the house union at the time and was taking part in a committee meeting in a room overlooking St Paul Street in the evening when I suddenly heard a commotion.

We were well used to Labour Party supporters stopping in front of Strickland House on their way to demonstrations in Valletta, throwing insults, stones and whatever at us. But this was different.

We looked out of the window and saw a group of people running in a raging fury towards the main door, screaming "Issa ghat-Times" (Next, for The Times). They forced the door open and in no time the building was on fire.

It is hard to realise, even today after so many years, that the socialists of the time had in fact succeeded in doing what neither Hitler nor Mussolini managed to do in the war, even though Strickland House received two direct hits. Everything, from documents to photographs since the 1920s, went up in flames. They brought the building down, but they did not silence the newspaper. The Times was on the streets the following day, telling the shameful story of the night before.

Like many others, I have had some scary experiences in my time, courtesy of Dom Mintoff's socialists - including an overnight stay behind bars at police headquarters, as guest of Inspector Anglu Farrugia and Superintendent Gejtu Pace, and a near-miss when a fanatic drove his car into a crowd at a meeting in Kalkara - but finding myself trapped in a room in a building engulfed in flames was frightening.

When the political arson- ists thought they had just about delivered the newspaper to its grave in their orgy of destruction, they fled, displaying the same rage and fury that drove them into the building.

Somehow - don't ask me how - I managed to escape through the front door among the burning debris. Others climbed down fire-engine ladders at the back of the building in St Ursula Street.

Only a few knew the extent of the arsonists' crime that night. Most of the newspaper's employees, misled by a TVM (the State broadcaster) news item reporting "some incidents and a small fire", could hardly believe their eyes when they saw their second home destroyed by fire. Most of them had been with The Times all their working lives. They had grown up with the smell of lead in their nostrils and lived to see the revolutionary change that offset printing brought about in the newspaper publishing industry.

On October 15, 1979, the night sky over Valletta was aglow with the flames of what must certainly have been the largest fire in the city since the war.

Mr Aquilina was assistant editor of The Times in 1979, editor between 1993 and 2003.

Wilfred Asciak

An incident took place in the morning at Auberge De Castille (next door) and from then on the tension was brewing.

We had already started hearing about other incidents in Valletta before they attacked us. We were always faced with all sorts of threats, they used to tell us they would silence us and that they'd come and burn the press down, so I wasn't surprised.

The mob started ramming the side door with a traffic bollard and they managed to get in and open the main door. Amid lots of swearing and shouting, they started destroying everything they came across, throwing items into the street. A desk thrown out of the window scraped the back of a fleeing employee - he spent six weeks in bed.

I saw two of the aggressors gathering a batch of dummy filters and lighting them up. I told them workers were still around but they ignored me.

Suddenly, two of them crept behind me, put a rod to my back and ordered me to show them the "big machine". I would have had a guilty conscience all my life if I revealed where it was so instead I led them to another room where we had the obsolete machinery. I got a knock on the head but I wasn't injured.

They told me to leave and never return. In the meantime, I heard Mgr Philip Calleja helped some of the staff escape from the building. I told a policeman stationed outside Castille to call for a fire engine but I have no idea if he did. I informed my family I was fine since news of the violence was spreading.

There was a sergeant and five policemen stationed outside The Times that day. Normally there would be a bus full of policemen. Maybe on the day they had other priorities. Did the mob have inside information? They might have had. Was I scared during the attack? I guess I was, but only later do you realise the danger you're actually facing.

Even the main staircase of the building collapsed, probably as a result of an explosion. The steel beams became twisted because of the intense heat. At home I've kept a melted fax machine as a souvenir.

The fire raged for 42 hours and the building was reduced to ashes in some places. You can replace machinery but sadly you cannot replace the huge volumes of history in pictures and documents that went up in flames.

We continued printing at the PN press for three weeks until we switched back to Valletta, operating under tough working conditions.

Mr Asciak was managing director of Progress Press from 1971 to 2003.

Mary Fenech Adami

My daughter, Maria, was about to do her Holy Communion at the time and I was returning from Mass when I saw a crowd gathered outside our home in Birkirkara.

The neighbours had locked themselves up in their homes. As I got closer I saw mayhem - our front door was wide open, and there were some 10 men inside ransacking the place and hurling furniture and books on to the street.

They were brandishing wooden clubs; solid legs sawn off a table - I still have one in the garage somewhere; I call it the devil's club. They smashed everything in their path, from the drinks' trolley to the glass doors and the wooden shutters. They did not leave one light bulb or chandelier intact downstairs. And, I'm talking of six rooms.

Inching closer, I shut half the front door, which sparked the fury of this big tough guy. He slammed me against the wall, tried to rip my earrings off and slit my ear. He was punching me on the chest and face. Then he kicked and pushed me onto the street. I was beaten black and blue but thank God he didn't break my bones or my teeth - they're still intact at the age of 75.

Luckily, a neighbour who saw the commotion rushed outside and took Maria to safety.

I was shouting at the men, demanding to know why they were doing this, but they just swore at me. I had no idea they had already been on rampage and plundered the Birkirkara Nationalist Party club, or The Times building.

I managed to return inside and sneak up to the first floor of our three-storey house. I found Eddie's mother, my four sons and the dog huddled together terrified and we went up to the top floor.

Our neighbour came to the rescue. He was on the roof and whispered to us to hang down a height of nearly one storey from the wall to his place. We spent several hours there - he took a risk because if they realised we were there the thugs would have attacked his place too.

Eddie was at Parliament at the time. We managed to reach him and I instructed him not to knock on the neighbour's front door, so he came from the roof and swung down. We stayed there until it was dark and then the neighbour got a ladder so we could return home.

The thugs were more intent on destroying the place than stealing, but they did take money and a watch belonging to Eddie's brother, which were on the commode, Eddie's typewriter and my mother-in-law's gold rosary beads.

The men were obviously following orders from someone, it's impossible to believe they were just acting on impulse. They did not cover their faces and the Chief Justice had later told me to go through Strada Reale (Republic Street, Valletta) to see if I could recognise them. I didn't know who they were and I never want to know them.

Michael Testa

Although I had covered various demonstrations as a reporter and got used to the frequent street disturbances in front of The Times offices, I sensed the coverage I was assigned in the evening - to mark the 30th anniversary of Prime Minister Dom Mintoff's leadership of the Labour Party - would not be routine.

I believe the attack on Progress Press was premeditated since I had been warned by a reliable source close to the police some days before. The source had asked me if I was going to be on duty on the Monday when the demonstration was due to be held. When I said 'yes' he advised me to be careful and if possible to avoid going to the press.

Alarmed at the comment I duly alerted one of the directors at Progress Press and a report was made to senior police officers.

Usually, reporters would return to the office, write the story and go home. This time was different. When I turned right from Melita Street into St Paul Street, I saw a thick plume of fire blazing from a balcony on the first floor and debris from the offices littering the street.

It is a scene that remains imprinted in my mind. It was the climax for the demonstrators as they had finished their job at the PN club and ran towards Merchants' Street shouting 'Ghal Mabel' (a reference to the newspaper's owner, Mabel Strickland). Earlier in the morning there was a shooting at the Office of the Prime Minister when a Labour supporter entered and demanded to speak to Mr Mintoff.

I had never felt my job was threatened but that night I felt the job I loved doing so much had come to an end. But we were told to follow the editor to the Nationalist Party's printing press at Pietà where we started producing the newspaper from scratch, including the report of that evening's mayhem. Though the edition of The Times on October 16 was understandably reduced in size, it maintained the record of never having missed an issue since its founding day.

A manifestation of public support for the newspaper followed and for many weeks later many full-page adverts were printed blank - except for the words 'In support of The Times'.

One does not appreciate freedom of the press until it is in jeopardy.

Mr Testa was reporter with The Times from 1971 to 2008.

Ronald Agius

I had only been on holiday in Philadelphia for an hour when I received a call saying the arson attack took place. At first I thought it was a joke but then Guido de Marco called to tell me to return at once. I told him it would be better for me to extend my stay to buy all the equipment we needed to from overseas.

When I returned I called a staff meeting and promised them we'd rebuild the place in no time and that nobody would lose their job. The solidarity from everybody was incredible - we were even sent free supplies for a while.

It was all hands on deck with all staff helping in whatever way they could, even to mount new aluminium windows. I still recall Twanny Falzon who risked his life to remove drums filled with inflammable liquid from the building. If fire had reached them, there would have been a big explosion.

I was informed the perpetrators fled because they feared they would get caught up in the flames. I recall a particularly badly charred room in the building where a hanging wooden cross remained intact. I was told the fire engines took 15 minutes to get there from their Floriana base.

They smashed the VIP phototypesetter, which was the first of its kind in Malta. We always expected a major incident - and we knew the bubble would burst one day. Twice a week we used to have stones hurled at the balcony. I was always worried that we'd be attacked.

Somehow that day they managed to infiltrate the building - they appeared to know where they had to go, like the adverts section. Luckily, Wilfred Asciak saved the day by having the presence of mind to take them to the old machines, which they smashed.

And then Dom Mintoff wrote to Mabel Strickland a few days later to say he always tried to protect her paper.

Mr Agius served as managing director of Allied Newspapers from 1968 to 2003.

Charles Grech Orr

When I was informed the building had been infiltrated I immediately switched off the corridor lights where the heavy machinery was located.

The move paid off, but by then they had already smashed machinery and burnt down the library, among other offices. I told the employees to flee the building from the back through St Ursula Street as pieces of charred roof started falling to the ground.

When we got to the streets we saw some bystanders laughing as the building went up in flames. That's something which upset me deeply.

I chose eight members of the editorial team and with the help of (legal consultant) Guido de Marco we decided to shift the operations to Independence Press. I asked for a room with typewriters and we worked all night to produce the paper.

At 8 a.m. as The Times building was still on fire, the first newspaper was printed. We never missed a beat and I felt that was the climax of my career.

The Times was pro-Europe and pro-West, but it had an independent voice, and I insisted on getting both sides of the story. The socialists felt we were against them.

After the attack, we were all in shock and I felt the effects for a long time after. The police saw the perpetrators approaching, entering the building and walking out. It was impossible for nobody to be identified - and yet, till this day, nobody has been brought to justice. I would have expected the police to be impartial.

Mr Grech Orr was editor of The Times between 1965 and 1990. His memories of Black Monday are also recounted in his book In the Editor's Chair.

Vincent Buhagiar

I was in Sicily when I heard on Rai news that a number of incidents had taken place in Malta. At that point I wasn't aware that The Times had been targeted.

We were used to people hurling stones at the Allied Newspapers building whenever there was a Labour Party demonstration or meeting. We actually used to have a stockpile of glass panes to replace the damaged ones. We had always been threatened but never did I imagine it would get this serious.

When I returned to Malta I remember being shocked at the state of the building as I heard the stories of the way staff had fled.

I was impressed with the way the staff reacted in piecing everything back together to get the building up and running in no time - and for this, to this day, we cannot thank them enough. Despite the vicious attack, our employees persisted and showed no fear.

Many were willing to help - even our debtors called to say they would settle their dues.

Mr Buhagiar has been managing director of Allied Newspapers since 2003.

See also

http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20091011/black-monday/shades-of-black-monday

A video documentary will be carried on timesofmalta.com on Thursday.

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