Interview: Joe Bonello

March 22, 2013 in U.S.A.R.

Ever since he was a young man, Joe Bonello spent most of his free time at the fireworks factory practising his pyrotechnic hobby. This hobby very nearly claimed his life and Joe attributes his survival to Sandro Camilleri – a volunteer with EFRU who quite literally risked his own life in order to save Joe’s.

‘I was in the workshop (Barrakka as we called it) working on some firework shells and taking them out to dry on trays. As I was going back in, I saw a colleague of mine who suggested we take a coffee break. I told him that I would join him later, as I had just made some coffee and was waiting for it to cool a bit. I started towards the kitchen when I saw a sudden blaze of fire inside, towards the back of the room. I shouted and went running towards the other rooms to warn the others, but after a couple of steps I felt as though someone pushed me hard and I was rolling on the stones and dust…I don’t remember anything else…’

In the meantime, Sandro was stuck in traffic nearby, on his way to a First Aid duty in Sliema. When he witnessed the factory explode, he immediately made his way to the site where he was the first to arrive. Sandro parked his Rescue Landover behind a wall for protection, as explosions were still occurring and stones and other debris were flying around. Soon afterwards, two district policemen arrived, followed by a teenage girl who claimed her father was still inside the factory. Sandro managed to calm the distraught girl and explained that if she entered the site, she might become yet another victim to the incident.

Two civilians then showed up and said they were familiar with the premises and could easily navigate through the ruins. Sandro gave them each a helmet, cut through the chain on the gate, and the three of them entered together to search for survivors. Explosions were still occurring and debris was falling around them but as Sandro explained, “we were very careful and took shelter where possible”.
They entered the ruins and made their way to the back of the factory, where Sandro found Joe lying against a wall. As a result of the blast, judging by the blood stain on the wall above him, Joe had been thrown around 10 metres from where he had been standing and had sustained a head injury, an open-fracture to his arm and a high percentage of burns on his back and side of body. Sandro described Joe as being “conscious, but suffering from shock and severely confused”. While Sandro assessed Joe’s injuries, the other two people who had accompanied him continued to search for other victims.

Sandro then grabbed Joe and carried him to a nearby fireworks workshop that was clear of the explosions still going on, and ran back to the road shouting for a stretcher and some assistance. By this time, an ambulance had arrived on the scene and the ambulance crew threw a stretcher to Sandro. He then ran back to Joe, manoeuvred him onto the stretcher and began dragging Joe to safety. The trek was difficult as Sandro was alone and the ground was strewn with rocks and other debris. As Sandro approached the road, a policeman and a bystander went to help him carry the stretcher up the last part to safety.

The first thing Joe remembers after the incident is waking up in hospital with his wife at his bedside. She filled him in on the details and he was shocked and upset to find out that he was the only survivor. “I cannot remember most of what happened. My wife said that I was conscious when I arrived at hospital, and the police were asking me questions about what happened…but I cannot recall any of it.”

In November 2012, Joe was invited to the EFRU annual barbecue and was given the opportunity to finally meet Sandro. Joe considers Sandro to be his hero, because as Joe put it “Sandro risked his life to save me”.

During the barbecue, although painful for Joe, he and Sandro talked about the incident and what had happened that day. Whilst talking to Sandro, Joe started remembering bits and pieces of what happened immediately after the initial explosions and also whilst Sandro was pulling him to safety. He recalled Sandro telling him what was happening and constantly reassuring him, as well as other details that only someone who was actually there could possibly have known.

During the same barbecue, Joe also learned about the work and training held at EFRU, and was presented with a plaque as a token from EFRU. Joe says that he’s placed it in a prominent place in the house, where it serves as a reminder to him that he should take every day as a blessing.

Joe Bonello, now 46 years old, works as a gardener and has turned his interest and focus to other hobbies (that do not relate to pyrotechnics), namely football. He has also taken the initiative and advanced his education by attending courses on Health and Safety in the workplace and is planning to follow a first aid course. As he explained, despite the need to be cautious and have the necessary qualifications to work in a fireworks factory, it is always better to be prepared and have safety precautions in place before something happens.

Joe stated that NGOs like EFRU are important for society and he has the utmost respect for the volunteers who carry out their work with a passion.

If you work with Pyrotechnics, Joe recommends that you work sensibly and according to a few simple rules:
• Always be careful.
• Follow the given instructions carefully.
• Follow the rules and practice what you have learnt for the exam to obtain the license.
• Do not take personal initiatives, they may lead to fatality.

Sylvana Cremona
EFRU First Aider