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20th anniversary of the Esmeralda tragedy

On June 7, 1990, four friends were on their way to Sardinia, Italy, aboard the yacht Esmeralda to watch England play during the Italia ‘90 World Cup. But they never reached their destination because the boat got caught in a storm and sank after the engine room flooded. Two days later, two of the men were rescued from a dinghy but the other two were never found.

Twenty years ago, Alfreda Schembri packed the travel bag of her husband, an engineer on the yacht, for what was to be his last work trip before retiring.

It was only two years ago she stopped hoping her beloved Johnny would return home. For 18 years, she had clutched on to the remote chance that he had somehow survived when the yacht sank.

Her husband, who was 60, and 52-year-old businessman Wilfred Mamo disappeared when the Esmeralda went down 20 miles off Sardinia, where it was headed. Its owner, Carol Calleja, and Manuel Grech, both prominent businessmen, had been rescued on a dinghy two days later.

"For many years I hoped he was somewhere safe and sound. To me he was not dead. Whenever we dedicated Mass for him I refused to pray for his soul and insisted that we pray for his needs... But about two years ago I stopped hoping... If he ever was somewhere, he'd be old. He would have turned 81 in September," Ms Schembri says, noting she was 52 at the time.

She had met her husband when she was 15 and he worked in a mechanic's workshop in Gżira.

"At first I was not interested because I only knew him in a boiler suit covered in oil... But I changed my mind when I met him all dressed up in a suit," she smiles.

The couple were married on June 18, 1955 and had four children. He would also be a grandfather of 11 and a great-grandfather of seven.

"The incident happened a few weeks before our 32nd wedding anniversary. I had a pair of coral earrings which I refused to wear any more since then," she adds.

Ms Schembri explains that her husband had been working on the Esmeralda for 17 years and was about to retire when tragedy struck. "He loved that boat... I used to see him sail into the Ta' Xbiex marina from our house in Paceville," she recalls.

Her daughter, Molly, remembers a time when she joined her father on a trip to Taormina aboard the Esmeralda. "I was only 13. I didn't understand what he was doing but it was amazing how he manoeuvred that boat. It was as though he was fighting the waves," she says.

The day of the accident was a Thursday and Ms Schembri was at a wedding oblivious of what had happened. "I think people who knew did not tell me because they hoped they'd be able to find them," she says.

On Friday morning, at 7.30 a.m., her door bell rang. When she saw her two sons-in-law outside she immediately realised something was wrong. "One of them told me that the ‘sheriff', as he called my husband, was lost and nothing was known about him. I went to my daughter's house... When the two men (Mr Calleja and Mr Grech) were found alive on the dinghy, I hoped," she says.

The survivors' account only fuelled her hope. They had said they saw her husband and Mr Mamo get on a life raft. "They even said that, at first, he did not want to get onto the dinghy. My husband was not crazy... He also knew how to swim. He loved the sea and was brought up around it... The mystery was always how there were four and two were found and the other two were not," she says in a resigned tone.

A few weeks after the boat sank, the body of a man had been found near the island of Linosa. Ms Schembri argues it was not her husband because his clothes were not familiar and the body was wearing socks when she knew her husband was always barefoot on board.

Molly disagrees, saying she thinks it was her father who may have worn someone else's clothes on board. The body wore a Seiko watch, just like her father's, that showed the date, June 8.

But the question mark still remained and the family continued to be haunted by uncertainty.

About three years after the accident, Ms Schembri reluctantly accepted to have her husband certified dead because she was advised it would be better to do so. But this did not dampen her hopes. In August 1994, she was leafing through The Times and spotted a photo of a French park ranger with Pope John Paul II. The resemblance between the ranger and her husband was uncanny but a private investigator confirmed it was not her Johnny.

"Hope is a good thing but it stops you from living your life," Molly says as her mother agrees, adding: "We will never forget him but I've stopped hoping... We still miss him a lot and still mention him often.

"Recently, my son went to a car show and saw a 1950s BSA motorcycle... My husband used to assemble them, so probably he had built it," she says.

Molly adds: "Many things happened in our family in these 20 years and that's when we mention him. During a marriage or a birth we wish he was present. But during the sad moments, like a family death, we thank the Lord he did not have to live through it."

She said that the family has had to accept that this was a tragic accident and there was nothing more to it. The family were never informed about any Italian or Maltese investigations into the case.

For the first time in 20 years, the family will be holding a ceremony in Mr Schembri's memory. They will be releasing a flower wreath into the sea he loved so much.

The Times contacted family members of the other men on board the Esmeralda but they preferred not to speak saying they wanted to leave the painful story behind them.

What happened?

Carol Calleja recounted how the engines went dead as the result of flooding in the engine room. Rather than going for the life raft, the men went for the rubber dinghy that was closer. The survivors never expected that their rescue would take so long after the May Day was issued.

Mr Calleja, who was then 49, said that when the yacht started sinking, Mr Mamo, Mr Grech and himself got onto the dinghy taking with them three life jackets but, for some reason, Mr Schembri hesitated to get off the yacht.

Mr Calleja said he saw Mr Schembri move to release the life raft when Mr Mamo dived into the sea, without a life jacket, to encourage Mr Schembri to get onto the dinghy. The dinghy then started drifting away from the yacht. Mr Calleja had said he was positive Mr Mamo had reached the yacht and was hopeful that the two missing men would be found alive on the life raft.

Mr Calleja also recounted how he and Mr Grech lost their drinking water when the dinghy they were on capsized.

"Despair gripped us when we watched helicopters and aircraft flying overhead and they did not spot us," he had said. They also feared being hit by large vessels at night and recalled the frustration of drifting away from land.

Throughout their 60 hours on the dinghy they also lost the plug and had to keep it blocked with their fingers.

Mr Calleja recounted the relief they experienced when they realised that a helicopter had spotted them on Saturday afternoon.

He said that he had carried out an extensive service on the Esmeralda not long before the tragedy. He had bought the yacht from the south of France and explained that his insurance did not cover the disaster because it was considered an act of God.

The Esmeralda timeline

June 5: The four men left Malta on the Esmeralda and headed to Cagliari to watch World Cup football matches in which England was playing. They first went to Mazzara del Vallo in Sicily to refuel and headed to Cagliari where they planned to spend 20 days berthed at the Sardinia yacht club.

June 7: At about 2 a.m., while on its way to Cagliari, the 20-metre, 80-ton Esmeralda got caught in strong north westerly winds. The Esmeralda sank 20 miles south east of Sardinia. A distress signal was sent to Capo Manno, Sardinia, at about 3 a.m. triggering intensive searches by Italian and American naval and air forces.

June 8: Parts of the yacht - consisting of a section of the bridge, its mast and radar - were spotted at sea and towed to Cagliari.

June 9: At about 1.30 p.m. an Italian helicopter noticed a dinghy with two survivors floating 10 miles east of the Egadi islands, off the Sicilian coast. The two men were Carol Calleja (the owner of a chain of restaurants who later moved on to open the Sliema car park) and Manuel Grech (co-owner of a chain of Square Deal retail outlets who passed away since). They were suffering from dehydration and were badly sunburnt. They were taken to the Trapani Civil Hospital in Via Cesena.

Searches continued for the other two men - John Schembri (the yacht's engineer) and Wilfred Mamo (an insurance agent and president of Neptunes Waterpolo Club). Some weeks later a badly decomposed body was washed onto the island of Linosa but was never identified as one of the two missing men.

June 15: Mr Grech and Mr Calleja arrived in Malta. On arrival, Mr Calleja gave his version of the events.

June 21: Searches by Italy and the Armed Forces of Malta were called off. The AFM assisted some independent searches. Tunisia and Libya, that had joined the search, continued until mid-July.

Mr Schembri and Mr Mamo were declared dead three years later.

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