On October 30, 1948, 25 people who wanted to return home for a long weekend boarded a luzzu at Marfa at 6.15pm in pitch darkness after the official ferry trip to Gozo was cancelled. Less than an hour later, the overcrowded boat sank, and 23 lives were wiped out within minutes.
Seventy-five years since one of the biggest Gozitan tragedies in living memory, researchers have finally put a face to all the victims of a calamity that is still shrouded in controversy.
Only four of the 27 aboard the F816 Żonkor survived, including a 15-year-old unsung hero who alerted the police about the sinking luzzu (traditional Maltese fishing boat).
Karmnu Attard swam ashore, climbed the steep rock face known as Tal-Imġarraf and ran up the hill from Ħondoq ir-Rummien to Qala, bare-footed and soaked to the bone. It took him just 49 minutes.
Karmnu’s quick action to alert the police, which reportedly helped save the lives of the others, is being preserved for posterity in an exhibition by the National Archives Gozo Section, and a new book by Mgr Joseph Bezzina.
Both mark the anniversary of the tragedy.
The story goes that fishermen Karmnu Grima ta’ Ħariru and Salvu Refalo ta’ Ħarbat had been asked by Police Sergeant Joseph Galea to proceed to Marfa to pick up stranded passengers, as the last trip of the Gozo-Malta ferry service on MV Banċinu, owned by the Gasan Line, had allegedly been cancelled due to bad weather.
As soon as Grima and Refalo arrived at Marfa, the waiting passengers rushed to board it. Despite the crew’s suggestion to take them home in two trips, all 25 boarded the small luzzu that could only accommodate half as much.
Survivors later testified they were “packed like sheep” and that the luzzu was only a few inches above sea level, with the passengers able to reach the sea with their hands.
The luzzu sailed out at 6.15pm. The crew initially suggested landing in Ħondoq because of the southwesterly winds, but those on board insisted on landing at Mġarr, which is where land transport was waiting for them.
The boat sank in the vicinity of Ħaġret iċ-Ċawl at 7.11pm ‒ an alarm clock discovered on board the luzzu later had stopped functioning at that precise minute.
Over the years, some, including former police officer and researcher Eddie Attard, have raised questions about the cancellation of the official ferry trip despite calm seas at Marfa.
This, he notes in his research, was something Henry Jones, leader of a Gozitan political party, had flagged at a Legislative Assembly when he noted that on the day the sea was not rough.
Attard also notes that then prime minister Pawlu Boffa had received an anonymous letter with allegations about action taken by the police on the day; however, the contents of that letter remain a mystery.
Meanwhile, a committee set up to investigate the incident took over a year to publish its findings, with the final inquiry report not explaining what led to the tragedy. Attard notes that the report only provided recommendations and claimed there was no need for further investigations.
In an attempt to answer such questions, a relative of one of the victims ‒ Mgr Joseph Bezzina – is laying bare the details of the luzzu trip in a new book, while providing a historical context to the Malta-Gozo ferry saga.
Launched to coincide with the tragedy’s anniversary, which he says is known by Gozitans as it-Traġedja taċ-Ċawl because of where the boat sank, the former assistant national archivist provides previously unpublished details about the trip.
In the book, he explains that ahead of the tragedy, passengers often protested about the inadequate and unreliable service between the two islands.
Following the tragedy, some spread a rumour that the boat had “capsised” because of bad weather. This despite Jones affirming (in the Legislative Assembly) that, on the day, the MMU luzzu, always heavily loaded, had made the round trip without any difficulty.
“The weather forecast, the weather report, the actual state of the sea, the important testimony regarding sea conditions by Attard, Buttigieg, Gauci, and Zammit, all four (surviving) passengers on the luzzu, leads to the obvious query – the true reason behind the decision of the captain of the Banċinu to divert to [St Paul’s Bay] when he could have easily docked at Marfa, where the sea was calm, and, as a result of that decision, he returned late to Mġarr and cancelled the last trip prior to a long weekend,” Bezzina says in his book.
Mgr Bezzina is among those who helped the National Archives Gozo section put a face to all the people who perished, assistant national archivist John Cremona told Times of Malta.
“The quest to obtain photos of all the victims and survivors of the tragedy was no mean feat, as portrait photography was not common in 1948 Gozo.
"We identified relatives through nicknames in the police reports, who in turn referred us to other relatives who might have a photo of the victims. We obtained the photos from Gozo, Malta, Australia and Canada.”
Research for the book was commissioned by the Gozo Regional Development Authority, which is also sponsoring the exhibition.
The victims and survivors
The 25 passengers and two rowers aboard the luzzu were (seen in the composite portrait photos at the top of the article, from left, top to bottom): Duminku Attard, Karmnu Azzopardi, Mikiel Azzopardi, Rita Buttigieg, Salvu Buttigieg, Manwel Camilleri, Ġorġ Curmi, Ġużepp Dingli, Ġorġ Galea, Ġużeppi Gatt, Karmnu Grima, Grezzju Magro, Wistin Magro, Ġanni Mercieca, Ċikku Portelli, Salvu Refalo, Baskal Sammut, Karmnu Spiteri, Manwel Sultana, Manwel Vella, Pawlu Vella, Ġużeppi Xikluna, Manwel Zammit; The following last four swam to safety: Karmnu Attard, Mikiel Buttigieg, Ċikku Gauci and Pawlu Zammit.
Heart-shaped pendant that identified the body of Ġużeppi Xikluna
Ġużeppi Xikluna worked as a postman in Malta with the government service. He travelled to Malta early on Monday morning and returned home to his family and fiancée every Saturday afternoon until that fateful day in 1948.
Prior to the post-mortem, a police sergeant and a constable frisked the bodies in search of items that they duly recorded.
On Xikluna, they found the sum of £14 in notes, which included his October salary well tucked in his pocket, one shilling, eight pence, a half penny, three small keys, a comb… and a gold neck chain with a gold heart attached.
This neckchain, a gift from his fiancée Annie Camilleri ta’ Barabba, proved crucial for his definite identification. At his retrieval, he had been in the sea for over 90 hours.
This anecdote has been published for the first time since the 1948 tragedy in the Gozo channel. The untold account book, which Mgr Bezzina concludes with the words: “After seven and half decades, the time was ripe to pay tribute to my uncle Ġużeppi, to whom I owe my name, and, with him, to the other 22 who perished on that tragic night.”
The 1948 Gozo Luzzu Tragedy exhibition by the Gozo Section of the National Archives will be open to the public on Triq Vajrinġa, Victoria, as of today (October 30).
The exhibition is on until November 30 and is open from Monday to Friday between 8am and 1.30pm and on Saturdays until 12.30pm.