Man feared dead in fireworks explosion

‘People were going to the factory all day’

Friends and family broke down as they waited for news of the missing man. Photos: Matthew Mirabelli

Friends and family broke down as they waited for news of the missing man. Photos: Matthew Mirabelli

Three massive explosions at the August 15 fireworks factory in Dwejra left a man missing and buildings blown to smithereens as the blasts were felt or heard across the islands yesterday afternoon.

The police last night said the search for Mario Dimech, 43, of Mosta, the secretary of his hometown’s pyrotechnics society, will continue today but he is feared dead by friends and fellow club members.

Mr Dimech was alone at the factory yesterday afternoon when hundreds of powerful ground and air fireworks, that were meant to be let off this weekend, exploded at about 3 p.m.

The series of blasts destroyed the factory while the thick protective blast walls that encircled the entire complex disintegrated.

A huge crater was formed as stones and rubble landed around the factory grounds, situated on a hilltop. A corrugated metal sheet used as a ceiling came down sideways in the ground.

A thick enclosure of trees that hid the factory from sight was blown away and entire trees, burning branches and flaming fireworks were spat out into the surrounding fields.

The explosion, which sent thousands of euro worth of fireworks up in flames instantaneously, sparked smaller fires on the hillside which burned for around two hours.

Earlier, hundreds of petards, mortars and other fireworks were ready to be transported to a field closer to the centre of Mosta to be used tonight and tomorrow evening for the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady.

The fireworks had been taken out of their storage rooms and were being kept outside. Throughout the day, members of the August 15 Pyrotechnics Society had been stopping by the rooms to check on the fireworks.

However, Mr Dimech was alone at the factory when the explosions occurred. His car was parked just outside the factory. It is not known what set off the blast.

Initial reports said three men had died in the explosions but it later emerged that only one was missing.

Members of the police, civil protection, army and medical services arrived within minutes of the blasts. However, they could not start their search for Mr Dimech before the raging fire, which burned for hours, was put out.

Cranes and other heavy machinery were brought on site to clear the rubble. The police called off the search at 9 p.m. and it will resume this morning.

The explosions were heard far and wide and were even mistaken for an earthquake in some places as buildings and window panes shook slightly. But a thick pall of white smoke, likened to a mushroom cloud by some, was seen from as far away as Nadur and immediately gave away the real nature of the incident.

Relatives and friends of members of the August 15 Pyrotechnic Society panicked and ran up the steep winding road that leads to the hilltop in Dwejra, just outside Mosta.

But they were stopped half-way by police officers who sealed off the area and only allowed ambulances, fire engines and police cars to go through.

Tensions ran high as a large crowd gathered just outside the police barrier and relatives tried to contact their loved ones. One by one they accounted for most of the members of the fireworks factory, except for Mr Dimech.

Some of his friends and family tried to go through the police tape only to be stopped and told to stay back for their own safety.

Crying and upset, the men shouted at the police officers who tried to calm them down while guiding them to the side to allow the emergency vehicles to pass.

The situation calmed down a few minutes later as friends persuaded them to listen to reason. Sitting by the side of the road, the men put their heads in their hands and wept for their friend.

A fireworks enthusiast des-cribed Mr Dimech as a great joker, “one of us – that’s all I can say at the moment as I don’t even want to think about it”.

He said he had planned to go and help out at the factory today and was in a state of shock. “It could have happened to me or to anyone – people were going up to the factory all day.”

But he could not understand how the explosion took place. “We put so much emphasis on safety – we even import the really dangerous ones instead of making them ourselves. We reinforced the blast walls just three years ago and the factory was one of the safest in Malta.”

The explosion stunned Mosta residents who are still mourning the loss of 26-year-old Mario Farrugia, a member of St Mary’s, the town’s other fireworks factory.

Mr Farrugia died last December almost three months after suffering from burns on 90 per cent of his body in an explosion.

Out of respect, the organising committee had decided to have a quieter feast and St Mary’s opted not to share the annual traditional display with the August 15 Pyrotechnic Society.

Meanwhile, the Sunday outdoor festivities for Sta Marija in Mosta are expected to be cancelled.

“This year’s feast was cursed – it started and ended with a curse,” a man said.

Magistrate Gabriella Vella went on site and appointed experts to help her in the inquiry. Emeritus Archbishop Giuseppe Mercieca, Deputy Prime Minister Tonio Borg, Public Dialogue Parliamentary Secretary Chris Said, Nationalist MPs David Agius and Edwin Vassallo and Labour MPs Michael Farrugia and Anġlu Farrugia were also on site.

This year has already been a tragic one for fireworks enthusiasts. In similar circumstances, a man died last May at St Catherine’s Fireworks Factory in Marsaxlokk and two men lost their lives in February at the St Sebastian Fireworks Factory in Qormi.


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