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February 26, 2010 in General

Two die in fireworks blast

Seven men were at the factory when explosion occurred

Michael Testa

Relatives of the men who were at the St Sebastian Fireworks Factory rushed on site to see what had become of their loved ones after the blast.

Two men lost their lives in an explosion that rocked the St Sebastian Fireworks Factory in the limits of Ħandaq, Qormi yesterday evening.

The dead men were named by friends and other fireworks enthusiasts as Damian Agius, who was in his early 20s, and Fredu Stellini, aged around 40, both of Qormi. Their bodies were found at about midnight underneath the concrete roof of the room they were working in.

A Hi-Mac had been brought to the siteatabout10p.m. in an effort to lift the concrete roof.

The explosion, which occurred at about 6.15 p.m., left another two persons slightly injured, while three escaped unhurt.

Smoke was still coming out of the debris hours after the blast, leading to the fear that other fireworks there could explode. Fireworks manufacturers were preparing fireworks for the feast of St Sebastian which is celebrated in the third week of July and for the ground fireworks,asSt Sebastian Fireworks factory was one of those listed for the ground fireworks festival in connection with the feast of St Publius in Floriana.

A fireworks manufacturer who was on site said the factory consisted of a number of rooms and the one which exploded was where ground fireworks were being prepared.

Residents in Qormi said they heard two explosions, one very loud and which rocked their homes, and a second smaller one. The explosion was heard from various parts of the island and as far away as Buġibba.

The road from Qormi to Luqa was closed to traffic.

The police said in a statement last night that there were seven persons at the factory at the time of the explosion. One of them, also from Qormi, aged 38, was not in the room that exploded. He was injured when he was thrown to the ground by the blast as he ran away. He was treated for minor injuries at Mater Dei Hospital and released a few hours later.

Another Qormi man, aged 57, was released from the Floriana health centre after he was also treated for slight injuries. The other three men who were unhurt, all from Qormi, are aged 53, 36 and 29.

Sources said that another man, who was extraneous to the explosion, was taken to hospital suffering from severe shock after he heard the blast and realised what had happened. A huge cloud of smoke rose above the factory.

As the situation in regard to who was in the factory at the time of the explosion became clearer, a frantic search started for the two men who were still missing. Medical personal from Mater Dei Hospital arrived in a number of ambulances.

Despite the police appeal to the public not to approach the area, many people ran to the site after the explosion was heard.

There were sad scenes as relatives of the people at the factory started arriving and insisted that the police allow them to get closer to see what had happened to their loved ones. Among the personalities at the scene of the accident last night were President George Abela, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi, president of the Malta Labour Party and Fr Joseph Buhagiar who is parish priest at St Sebastian.

The police immediately launched an investigation into the explosion while Magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera appointed a team of court experts to draw up reports for the inquiry.

Nearly five years ago in July, Carmelo Cauchi, aged 40 of Qormi, was crushed to death by a metal press, used to make petards that he was cleaning at the same fireworks factory. There were no fireworks at the factory at the time as the town had just celebrated the feast of St Sebastian.

The same factory was involved in a controversy last July when it was blamed for a fire that engulfed the golf club at Marsa, with the club saying it was a petard that caused the fire and destroyed some €200,000 worth of golf clubs and shoes and caused structural damage of an additional €80,000. The factory contested this accusation, saying no petards had fallen on the locker room.

The last fireworks factory explosion took place last October 24 when Mario Farrugia, 26, of Mosta was at a factory in Bidnija. Mr Farrugia sustained burns to 90 per cent of his body and succumbed to his injuries a few weeks later. Two other men from Mosta, who were also inside the factory, were treated in hospital for minor injuries.