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Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Crying Sea. Not heard in Malta

On Monday July 7th 2008, the 'Simshar' left Marsaxlokk, Malta's main fishing harbour and sailed to an area of the Mediterranean between Sicily and Lampeduca. On board were skipper Simon Bugega 35, his father Carmelo 61, his son, Teo 11, Maltese crewman, Noel Carabott 33, and Abdulrahman Abdula Gedi 21, a Somalia national.

Three days of excellent swordfishing allowed them to return a day earlier than planned. Halfway home, on Thursday 10th July, an explosion ripped the boat apart. The crew, though singed and battered, were not seriously injured and faced an agonising choice: take to the water or burn to death.

Having failed to inflate a life raft, they put together a makeshift raft from pieces of polystyrene, empty plastic containers and some netting and rope. Having lowered it into the sea, they climbed down, attached themselves to it and with the boy lying on top,floated away from the blazing vessel.

Without a morsel of food or a drop of drinking water, they floated aimlessly as they watched their boat burn out and sink to the depths of the Mediterranean. The skipper, Simon, devastated by the loss of his boat andwithout any means of sending a distress message, was still confident of being rescued. The absence of regular monitoring signals from the boat would be noted in the Fisheries Department.The Armed Forces would then be alerted and planes, helicopters and patrol boats would soon be out searching for them. Sadly, that didn't happen.

On Saturday 12th July, the Somalia crewmember died, Noel Carabott succumbed on Sunday, and the next day the skipper's father, Carmelo, passed away. Fora furtherthree days of anguish, Simonand his young son kept each other alive.Sadly, on Thursday 17th July, Teo died. Despite Simon'sbrave efforts to stay awake and protect his son's body from the sea's predators, he failed and Teo slipped from the 'raft'.

Simon was on the point of expiring when he was rescued by a fishing boat from Marsaxlokk, skippered by his cousin, Mark Bugega. He was flown by helicopter to the Mater Dei Hospital for emergency treatment which saved his life.

Many questions remain unanswered. The families, the fishermen and the people of Malta want answers, particularly in relation to the search and rescue.

On Sunday 27th July 2008, the 'Times of Malta' published a statement from Martin Caruana, a fisherman and a former secretary of the 'Fishermens Co-Operative'.

In his statement, Mr Caruana said that the Simshar's 'Vessel Monitoring System' (VMS) stopped on July 10th at about 8pm.

"All fishing vessels have this instrument, which transmits their position by satillite. Why did the fishing authorities not raise due alarm when the signal stopped? The Fisheries Department's reply that the person who monitors these signals was on leave, was weak. Weaker still was the 'clarification' that 'the VMS was not intended for search and rescue, and that sometimes the battery of such instruments runs out.' It is mystifying that Marsaxlokk fishermen established that the VMS had stopped functioning within three days, yet this lead was not fully interpreted.

The satellite telephone of the 'Simshar' also dropped contact at the same time. Did anybody ask why?"

Mr Caruana says that on July 12th, relatives of those on the 'Simshar' asked the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) to try to make contact with the vessel, but were told this was not possible - 'responsibility for that lay elsewhere.'

Mr Caruana's statement continued, "When the fishermen finally took the law into their own hands, so to speak, they set out to sea and did not take long to locate a number of the victims of the tragedy. There seems to have been a lack of collaboration, or at least of co-ordination between the Fisheries Department and the Armed Forces. Had sombody analysed the non-functioning of the VMS, the satellite telephone, the VHF and the absence of any flare signals, near-correct hypotheses could have been developed much earlier. It was remarkable that the fishermen's advice was not sought in regard to the sea conditions and currents in the general area where the 'Simshar's position was last recorded."

Reacting to the criticism, the AFM gave a detailed 'account' of its efforts to locate the fishing boat and continue to deny claims that it had restrained searches by the fishing vessels, adding that "it had left no stone unturned to locate the overdue vessel and its survivors."

The Maltese Government has also responded by setting up a Magisterial Enquiry into the sinking of the 'Simshar' and the deaths of the four people.

Independently, the Transport Minister, Austin Gatt, has appointed lawyer, Anne Feneck, to carry out an investigation into the tragedy and to make anyrecommendations she deems necessary.

The results of these enquiries are eagerly awaited. The families of the dead and the fishermen of Marsaxlokk need to know why their loved ones died and why theircries from the sea were not heard in Malta.

The harrowing story of intense human drama is told in a new book: 'The Crying Sea'available online at:

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