On the 7th of September 1984, seven personnel perished in the violent explosion on board the AFM patrol boat C23, some two miles off Qala Point in Gozo.
Patrol boat C-23 was on a dumping detail of illegally manufactured fireworks. It was a routine operation which followed the Police’s find and seizure of the fireworks in the limits of Zabbar a day earlier.
Bombardier Joseph Pace, 36 of Santa Venera;
Gunner William Simpson, 36 of Lija;
Private Anthony Vella, 20 of Ghajnsielem, Gozo;
Police Sergeant Saviour Muscat, 30 of Birkirkara; and
Police Constable Joseph Hare, 24 of Sliema,
The remains of 36-year-old Bombardier Francis Borg of Hamrun and 27-year-old Private Anthony Farrugia of Zejtun, were never found. Private Emmanuel Montesin, 21 of Paola, survived the blast and managed to steer the patrol boat to Comino, where the alarm was raised.
The fireworks had been seized the previous day in the limits of Zabbar and were being carried on the deck of the patrol boat when the sudden explosion occurred. The cause was never conclusively established, although it is thought to have been a spark caused when a hatch was closed.
The following day, September the 8th, was declared a Day of National Mourning. The flag-draped coffins were carried together in a large military funeral attended by thousands of people and led by a Guard of Honour of what was then the Task Force.
The flag-draped coffins were brought to Malta on patrol boats ‘C-28’ and ‘C-29’, and a funeral cortege left St Luke’s Hospital. Thousands of people gathered to pay their last respects along the route as a Task Force AFM 48-men guard of honour, led by Captain Charles Mansueto, escorted their fallen comrades.
Following the tragedy fireworks have no longer been carried on patrol boats. After the incident they used to be carried on towed barges, however, now, these type of details are not carried out by AFM patrol boats.
After the incident, the patrol boat was towed for repairs at the Malta Drydocks Manoel Island Shipyard. It was later reinstated into service with its new designation of ‘P-23’.
This patrol boat is currently on the hard at Maritime Squadron Base in Hay Wharf and waiting to be placed as a ‘gate-guard’ and as a monument for the seven soldiers and policemen who were killed on board in a fireworks explosion, 30 years ago.
30th Anniversary Commemoration Ceremonies were held at Maritime Squadron Base and at San Diego Maritime Museum where C23’s sister boat P24 is currently displayed.
Photographs: AFM Press Office