Over 100 tremors have hit Malta since January 17. But there is one just over 50 years ago that many still recall. 

On March 21, 1972, an earthquake shook the island in the late hours of the night and brought with it a wave of panic that sent people to bastions, seafronts and gardens as they sought the safety of open space.

Measuring 4.5 on the Richter scale, it originated roughly 30km east of the island.

“I remember waking up and feeling my bed shake quite strongly,” said Pauline Galea, head of the Seismic Monitoring & Research Group at the University of Malta.

Galea explained that although there was no official call for people to find open spaces, rumours were spreading that an “aftershock” might shake the island, so people began to spread the word to seek areas away from buildings.

“But I just went back to sleep because my family wasn’t too worried,” said Galea, who was 16 at the time.

Chris Scicluna was woken up in the middle of the night by his family.

“I was a child at the time. My brother and I were taken out to the street, where there was quite a crowd of people. After some time, we were taken to Ta’ Qali and slept in the car,” said Scicluna, now an editor. 

“We had no school the next morning, and we were taken to the Stazzjon garden in Birkirkara, since people were told to stay outdoors,” Scicluna remembers.

The Times of Malta March 23, 1972 issue read: “The first shock caused people in towns and villages to open their doors and as frightened people spoke to frightened people, they began to leave their homes with their children and some also with their possessions.”

The newspaper reported many people left their houses because of the danger and wound up in various open spaces. Valletta residents spent the early morning hours on the bastions while people in the Sliema area fled to the seafront and students evacuated their dorms.

“I was a boarder at St Edward’s College,” Times of Malta deputy print editor Anthony Manduca said.

“Brother Allen, who was headmaster at the time, came into the dormitory clapping and shouting that there was an earthquake and instructed us to collect our things and go to the football pitch. So, we grabbed our pillows and spent the night there. It was like an adventure.”

The next day was rife with workers missing their shifts as managers reported high levels of absenteeism.

At Malta Rubber Ltd, 750 workers were missing from its morning and day shifts.

Some schools sent students home early while others simply cancelled all lessons and stayed in the library.

Reportage of the earthquake on the Times of Malta of Thursday, March 23, 1972.Reportage of the earthquake on the Times of Malta of Thursday, March 23, 1972.

Despite the nationwide panic, there were no casualties and damage was negligible as the only physical effect reported was the Żejtun parish church, which survived with some cracks while a stone crashed to the ground opposite the main door.

However, there have been seven known earthquakes reported in Malta’s history that have caused damage. Although seismic equipment did not exist for most of the incidents, historical reports indicate various elements such as magnitude and intensity alongside people’s experiences.

December 10, 1542

Although local documents related to that period do not make mention of the incident, a quote in the Chronaca Siciliana del Secolo XVI points towards an earthquake that hit a seven on the European macroseismic scale (EMS), a scale that measures the intensity of an earthquake felt by people and varies from place to place. The scale starts at a low score of one, which means it was not felt, and tops out at 12, categorised as completely devastating.

An EMS intensity of seven is classified as “damaging” and although Galea attributes this value to the earthquake, she makes it clear that further evidence can change the value.

The earthquake originated from a Sicilian fault line and was felt “very strongly”, Galea says in a 2007 paper, “and a few one-floor dwellings (casupole) collapsed”.

January 11, 1693

Preceded by a magnitude 5.9 foreshock two days before that passed through Malta without leaving any damage, 1693’s earthquake left 6,000 fatalities in Eastern Sicily.

Although no direct fatalities were recorded in Malta, the island was in a panic as “most inhabitants spent a number of nights outside their homes, in tents or underground shelters”, which led to an Order-instructed commission that surveyed the damage in Valletta and surrounding areas Cospicua, Vittoriosa and Senglea.

“In Valletta, it is reported that there was not one house that did not need some repair,” Galea said.

Facades of major buildings were detached and needed immediate repair as they ran the risk of an imminent collapse, while church domes fell and walls cracked. Some houses had to be demolished to avoid an accidental collapse and further damage.

No one dared enter the cathedral, not even the bell ringer

Mdina Cathedral also partially collapsed while other buildings in the old capital suffered serious damage although reports indicate that the cathedral was “already showing signs of disrepair”.

“One part of the cathedral that had already been replaced, the choir, in fact escaped damage in the earthquake,” Galea wrote.

The event was classified between an intensity of seven and eight in Malta but eastern Sicily was not as lucky as they felt between a 10 and 11 (very destructive to devastating). To top it off, the earthquake produced a tsunami that swept along Sicily’s eastern coast which was also reported in Gozo.

February 20, 1743

Just over 50 years later, the Maltese islands shook with an EMS intensity of seven for seven-and- a-half minutes, dealing great damage to both islands.

Several churches were impacted, including the Mdina Cathedral which suffered major damages as its small dome collapsed, a section of the choir was destroyed and bell towers were heavily damaged as cracks spread across the walls.

“No one dared enter the cathedral, not even the bell ringer dared go near the bells,” Galea’s paper reads.

Meanwhile, in Wardija, people reported that the ground rose and fell with such brutal force that floating dirt created a “mist like fog for a long time”.

October 12, 1856

Although experts gave an estimated maximum intensity of five (strong) to the 1856 earthquake as its epicentre was some 1,000km away, the havoc it caused on the island indicates a stronger reality.

Reported by local newspapers Il Portafoglio Maltese, L’Ordine and The Malta Mail, the seismic shock rudely awakened sleepers all over the island as they rushed out of their houses into the night following the minute-long rumble.

Most houses across Valletta and many more across Malta and Gozo suffered serious cracks to their property, including churches that also suffered detached crosses and other fixtures, while part of the Mdina Cathedral’s dome once again collapsed to a hefty bill of £1,000 (roughly €92,000 today).

Calculating the reports and accounts, the earthquake was assigned an intensity of seven.

August 27, 1886

There are mixed reports of the 1886 earthquake that also affected Sicily and Southern Italy. Reporting the day after the shock, the Malta Times said that “the damage done to many buildings in the city is in some cases very serious” and that the Superior Court was no longer safe as the roof and keystone had been split.

“70 [seconds] of fearful suspense, held almost every inhabitant of the island, in a state of utter bewilderment, which was further intensified by a recurring shock, of force and duration if anything, exceeding that of its predecessor,” the paper read.

However, several days later, L’Ordine reported that the damages were not serious despite the country’s general panic as people rushed into the street the night of the shake.

The earthquake is believed to have begun in the Aegean Sea with a magnitude of 7.5 at its epicentre and was felt with an intensity of seven by locals.

September 30, 1911

In 1911, an earthquake sent statues and rural structures tumbling as Gozitans abandoned their houses as the sister island took the brunt of the hit.

The Gozo hospital, “which was happily empty”, the Daily Malta Chronicle reported, was completely wrecked and left unusable as the still-standing walls were no longer structurally sound.

In Malta, however, a few cracks popped up on buildings across the island despite people panicking at the strong shaking they felt.

With an intensity of seven in Gozo and five in Malta, it is still unclear where the earthquake originated from, yet evidence points to an epicentre somewhere in the Sicily Channel due to the difference in damage between the two islands.

September 18, 1923

Well-described by local papers, the 1923 tremor caused panic on both islands yet the reported damage was mainly non-structural, such as cracked church domes and collapsed stone crosses.

Apart from local accounts, the quake was recorded on a seismograph in Valletta. Yet, after inspection, its results were deemed unusable as the shock had thrown the mechanism out of alignment.

With an intensity level of six, the earthquake was also slightly felt in Syracuse, Sicily, which has led researchers to believe that its origin falls somewhere in the Sicily Channel, probably closer to Malta due to the island’s greater intensity. The Daily Malta Chronicle reported that the disturbance must have occurred some 50 or 60 miles away from the island.

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