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Playing with fire

Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

Joseph Mangion, Lija fireworks factory secretary and friend of the Gozo blast victims tells Herman Grech it is tight legislation, not knee-jerk reactions, that should govern his controversial pastime.

Fireworks enthusiast Joseph Mangion sits sombrely at the timesofmalta.com studio, reflecting on the death and destruction that has clouded his passion and pastime.

Two weeks ago a friend narrated a story to him, a dark picture which has rudely come to life after one of Malta’s worst ever fireworksdisasters.

A fireworks factory secretary had commissioned the late Ġanni Fenech from Birkirkara, known as tas-Sikkina, part-time fireworks agent and part-time artist, to draw a painting to depict their common passion.

Instead of painting a typical Maltese scene, or the beauty of the coloured fireworks, Mr Fenech opted to illustrate a cemetery located in the village hosting the fireworks factory.

“He painted the cemetery to remind everybody that the smallest mistake could cost you and others dear. I think whoever is involved in the manufacture of fireworks should realise they are working with fire. Once you take things for granted in this business you have no fear,” Mr Mangion, 47, muses.

The Lija enthusiast is well aware of the cost of playing with fire. Several years ago, he was caught in the crosswinds of fire when he was helping with paper disposal at a fireworks factory.

“I felt the heat, and it immediately taught me a lesson, it put things into perspective,” he says, quickly dismissing it as a minor accident, equivalent to burning oneself with the oven fire.

But Mr Mangion is now well aware that Ġanni Fenech’s painting is a rude wake-up call . Wearing a dark suit and black tie, his eyes are still bloodshot following his earlier encounter with Maria Farrugia, the woman who lost an entire family at the Għarb fireworks factory.

Holding back tears, he looks up at the sky and says: “I tried to console her, but of course, (fireworks victim) Nenu is never going to come back. You have to offer encouragement to the family. You have to retain good memories.

“There is an atmosphere of grief, but you have to move on. The wife of one of the victims is still so young. It’s heart-wrenching to see a family reduced to that state.

“Maria is still stunned by the incident. She can’t understand why Nenu said ‘ciao’ when she called him at the factory a minute before the factory blew up – he had never said that before.”

Mr Mangion is now involved in the funeral preparations of Nenu Farrugia, a man he has known for 25 years, and who he had last assisted during the Santa Marija feast preparations.

Though the Farrugia Brothers factory was a commercial venture, the owners used to make sure they delivered a fine product to its clients, to provide good value for money. They were “professional competitors”. A tinge of guilt envelopes Mr Mangion. Five years ago he was approached to rebuild the factory following a previous blast and he did his utmost to help the Farrugias obtain permits, reconstruct the structure and save money. He even donated items to the Għarb factory.

However, Mr Mangion dismisses any claims of deficiencies in the way the factory was constructed, insisting the store was built to the best safety standards.

He believes there were too many fireworks stored for the relatively small size the factory, a factor which probably caused the death of six people.

“It wasn’t wise to store such a volume of fireworks in there,” says Mr Mangion, though he is reluctant to accuse the victims of negligence.

Having been involved in the fireworks sector for some 23 years, Mr Mangion has seen several friends and acquaintances perish in a cloud of smoke.

Still, like many of them, he finds it difficult to abandon his pastime for ever and repeats the cliché which has become all too common among pyrotechnics lovers.

“Until I go to the funeral and I hear the band playing and the first petard, I curse fireworks. But then you think deeply and realise that a feast without fireworks is a dead feast. Fireworks are part of our culture. What we need is more monitoring,” he says, matter-of-factly.

He insists that every enthusiast is taking a risk by dabbling in fireworks, irrespective of the quantity of explosives he is working with.

“We need more awareness and we should stop taking things for granted. We need to realise we are working in a dangerous environment, during the manufacture and the transport process.”

Despite the monitoring and the rules, is it ingrained in Maltese culture to take excessive risks?

“We need to ensure that the material every factory receives is checked thoroughly to make sure it’s suitable for pyrotechnic use. We need more guidelines such as ensuring that the weather conditions are right. It’s up to the workers to abide by them. Let’s remember the inspectors can’t be around all the time.”

He refutes suggestions that pyrotechnics lovers are always ignoring the regulations and that inspections are too few and far between.

“We are not alerted about inspections. Inspectors take their jobs seriously and so should the workers. Let’s remember it’s the workers who will ultimately suffer and who could pay with their life if they don’t heed the rules.”

He says the fireworks course that enthusiasts have to take is tough – but ultimately it is up to them and the manufacturers to put their learning into practice to weed out any unnecessary risks.

“This is like having a car with a powerful engine – you know you are taking risks if you speed. Fire is always a risk. You can’t take chances.”

Still, he insists factories have no choice but to abide by strict rules nowadays. For example, they are forced to sign declarations at various stages of the fireworks process. In the meantime, the authorities are always on alert, he claims.

Mr Mangion cannot put his finger on the reason behind the disasters and the rising figures of casualties from fireworks explosions, despite the incessant warnings and promises of stricter legislation.

Sadly, the cause of many factory blasts is a secret known only by the victims, says Mr Mangion, adding that only an inquiry can possibly shed light on the Għarb disaster.

He acknowledges that more could be done to beef up safety. He cites the transportation of fireworks as an example of this.

Fireworks, he insists, should not be carried and transported by road, where possible, and should ideally be towed on an open, motorless barge.

“We need to revise the way we’re transporting fireworks and the way we’re storing them. When we transport them on road vehicles it’s the equivalent of having a fireworks factory on wheels going through villages. The authorities provide you with police during transportation, but it’s not enough. Everyone needs to be alerted about the material being carried.”

Mr Mangion, a former Lija mayor, immediately goes on the defensive when asked if he would be prepared to demolish and rebuild his factory if the authorities find it has irregularities, even if dating back years.

“Everything is in order at our factory, and at no point do we dare to break the law. We need an authority to teach and lead. The board of inspections today will give you a deadline by when to come in line if there’s anything wrong. If you fail to do so, they will close you down. We have to abide by a set of strict rules, ranging from not taking mobile phones into the factory to the number of workers permitted inside.”

Now that a review board has been set up to review the safety of fireworks, Mr Mangion believes officials from different factories should be roped in to share their knowledge.

Ultimately though, the only way to eradicate accidents altogether is to shut down all the factories, which Mr Mangion is quick to deem as “impossible”.

However, he understands the ever-increasing calls by the public to shut down fireworks factories for good.

A tragedy has shocked the country and its inhabitants are bound to panic. But he warns the public against knee-jerk reactions without contemplating the repercussions.

If the government decides to take drastic action to close fireworks factories on the grounds that they are a public hazard, how would he react?

“That’s impossible! No authority or government would dare do it. If they decide to stop the production of fireworks it would be a blow to the country. Let’s not forget that governments use fireworks to embellish celebrations and that tourists want to experience fireworks. This happens overseas as well,” Mr Mangion says.

So does he think those who are calling for a complete stop are hypocritical because they still want to admire the fireworks?

“I’m not in their shoes. They have a right to criticise but they’re not right to eradicate culture and someone else’s pastime.”

He insists that no third parties were involved in the most recent accidents.

When it is pointed out that private properties have been damaged as a result of pyrotechnics accidents in the past, he rallies to enthusiasts’ defence.

“Fireworks factories are built within the distance required by law. If I’m bothered by fireworks, I wouldn’t want to live close to a place which manufactures them and I wouldn’t go to a feast. They have to accept the views of others. Aren’t those who hate fireworks entitled to their own pastime?”

He takes objection to those who portray fireworks enthusiasts as infatuated madmen who are prepared to die for their pastime, irrespective of family ties. Fireworks’ producers are no suicide pilots, Mr Mangion insists.

“I don’t even want to hear the word ‘kamikaze’. Whoever says that is irresponsible... Whoever works in the fireworks sector is making a sacrifice for himself and his family.”

So is it a sacrifice or a hobby?

“The hobby is a sacrifice. It’s a major commitment which keeps you away from the family. You are pleasing others who are watching the fruits of your work.”

But when tragedy strikes, enthusiasts will always reflect on their pastime. Some will choose to give it up, others will continue.

Ultimately, though, in the wake of tragedy there should always be a sign of respect. Mr Mangion believes the committee of the Xagħra feast, for which the explosives that ripped through the Farrugia fireworks factory were destined, should have taken a different attitude.

The feast committee decided to go ahead with the celebrations, albeit in a more condensed format, arguing that the victims were not from Xagħra and the factory was not located in the village.

Mr Mangion says the victims should have been shown more respect: “When Nenu took on the fireworks of Marija Bambina feast into his factory he was giving a service. His factory was commercial but he accepted the work out of goodwill. The family is hurt.”

Watch excerpts of the interview on www.timesofmalta.com

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