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30 July 2014

The Simshar Tragedy: Last hope

 - Tuesday, 22 July 2008, 00:00 , by Bernard Busuttil

The chances of finding 11-year-old Theo Bugeja have drastically diminished, and the sea will make things even more difficult today as it is expected to become rough in the afternoon.

It is understood that the boy, who was on his father’s fishing boat Simshar when an explosion took place some 60 miles off Benghajsa Point on 10 July, died in his father’s arms seven days later.

The boy was on a fishing trip with his father Simon, 35, grandfather Carmelo known as it-Tabakku, 61, Noel ‘Murdoch’ Carabott, 33, and 21-year-old Somali Abdulrahman Abdala Gedi. The vessel left Marsaxlokk on 7 July, sadly never to return.

Simon Bugeja, who is the sole survivor, told the crew on board Grecale when he was rescued last Friday that all other crew members had died, with Mr Gedi dying on Saturday 12 July, Mr Carabott dying on Sunday 13 July and his father dying on Monday 14 July. Like Mr Bugeja and Mr Carabott, the police yesterday confirmed that Mr Gedi had died from drowning.

Mr Bugeja told his rescuers that Mr Carabott stripped naked and donated his clothes to Theo in order to warm him up at night. He said his son was still alive on Thursday 17 July and he was holding him against his chest. On that day they had also seen aircraft flying over them, yet their efforts to be spotted passed unnoticed.

Later on in the day the boy had closed his eyes and appeared to be dead. The father stubbornly held on to his child until the continuous flow of the waves loosened the grip of the man who had gone without drink, food or shelter in the open seas for a week.

The boy slowly slid away from his father’s embrace and finally dropped in the sea on Friday morning, as his father went into an unconscious state that was broken only by the drone of the Grecale’s engine.

Skipper Mark Bugeja, 28, yesterday recounted to the press on board the vessel how he and his crew, made up of Malcolm Degabriele, 30, and Carmelo Bugeja’s brother Joe and his son Joseph, found Simon Bugeja alive on Friday evening. The Grecale returned to port yesterday morning.

The shipwrecked man was resting on four bricks of polystyrene and a bag of empty detergent cans which he had tied together.

At first he looked dead; however, when the boat was just 100 metres away, Simon feebly raised his hand and waved once. The crew pulled the man on board amidst an atmosphere of jubilation, especially since a few hours earlier, Carmelo’s other brother Amante aboard the Madonna tal-Karmnu found his brother’s body afloat.

The discovery, according to Joseph Bugeja, came about after the Madonna tal-Karmnu saw a helicopter circling ahead of them. Another Bugeja family member, Pierre told his uncle Amante to set sail towards where the helicopter was flying. The aircraft signalled them and flew off, only to leave the crew grief-stricken at the discovery of Carmelo Bugeja’s body which was floating with to pieces of polystyrene, one red and one white, attached to each arm.

Joseph described how the Grecale crew was alerted by Amante’s bloodcurdling cry on the VHF radio that he had just found his brother’s body.

Amante then instructed the Grecale to follow Mr Bugeja’s body fluid trail left in the sea currents. The boat found the survivor just five miles away from his father’s corpse.

Mark Bugeja said the he only saw search aircraft twice while his vessel was searching for survivors. On Friday, he said, his vessel made contact with an Italian patrol boat which was not aware that four men and a boy were dispersed at sea. Other sources told this newspaper that Sicilian fishermen on the island’s east coast were not aware that a search had been mounted.

The Marsaxlokk fishermen cannot come to terms on how could their fellow fishermen perish and not being rescued for over a week.

Ghaqda Kooperativa tas-Sajd secretary Paul Piscopo told this newspaper that all fishing vessels were equipped with a Vessel Monitoring System that lets the Fisheries Department know of its position. He said that only one department worker, whom he described as very dedicated, was assigned to monitor the system and he worked on half days in summer and was abroad when tragedy struck onboard the Simshar.

He proposed that vessels should send a text message via their VMS every 12 hours in order to make sure that they were safe.

The cooperative secretary said the equipment the AFM had boasted that it could spot a soft drink can from miles had not functioned for six months and that the rescue team had no training in spotting people at sea.

The cooperative’s former secretary Martin Caruana said the lack of liaising between the Fisheries Department and AFM led to delay in the launch of rescue operations. He wondered how the two did not deduce that the AFM should be searching for men afloat rather than a stranded vessel. Simshar, he said, was equipped to send distress signals, thus it was obvious that a quick and tragic incident must have prevented the crew from calling for help.

He called for a public enquiry to probe into the search and rescue operations following the tragedy.

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