What happens to victims of building collapses? One man whose mother died when their family home caved in calls for more support for those devastated by other people's negligence.

Paul Vella was at a business lunch when he received the phone call that would change things forever. “Drop whatever you’re doing and head straight to hospital. Something happened to mum,” his wife told him.

When he arrived at St Luke’s Hospital his sister broke the news: their childhood home in Cathedral Street, Sliema, had collapsed while his mother, brother and uncle were having lunch. The collapse was brought about by neighbouring excavation works.

His uncle Anthony Mifsud, an amputee, had managed to get out in time. But his 84-year-old mother Rita Vella and brother Joe were injured. His brother survived but their mother died a few hours later in hospital.

“It was a terrible shock which we still feel to this day,” says Mr Vella.

“Losing a mother is not easy. Our lives changed completely. From having a mother who used to watch out for us and call us, we suddenly found ourselves without her. It was a total collapse.

“We had a very close family – seven kids with all the nephews and nieces. Our mother’s house was our meeting point for all those years. Then it was erased from our lives. When a mother who was so caring gets taken away by negligence and carelessness – it hurts.”

The Vella family home on 25, Cathedral Street, Sliema, and the aftermath of the collapseThe Vella family home on 25, Cathedral Street, Sliema, and the aftermath of the collapse

The day everything changed

The home collapsed on April 12, 2000. The family had been noticing cracks in the property long before. Architects had told them there was nothing to worry about. But a few days before the accident the cracks increased drastically.

On the morning of the accident, Paul’s sister, Carmen, went to their mother’s house and saw that the situation was alarming. The building was shaking. Carmen headed to the neighbouring site and asked workers to immediately stop excavating and call the architect. A meeting was planned between the site architect and the family architect that day at 1pm.

“My sister and her husband were there in the morning. Then, on my mother’s insistence, they went home for lunch to return soon after for the meeting. At 1.05pm my sister called my mother and told her they were on the way.

“For some reason she got held up briefly. At 1.10pm she called my mother again to tell her they were leaving. No one answered. The lines had gone. Then a neighbour called my sister and told her there was a collapse,” Paul recalled.

He later learnt that, when the building caved in, his mother, brother and uncle were having lunch on the ground floor.

By the time she walked round the table and started heading out the building collapsed. My mother was buried totally except for her heel

“My mother was sitting in her usual place, my uncle was sitting at table and my brother was going to sit next to her. My uncle noticed some fine dust falling onto the table. He looked up and told my brother. They decided to get out.

“My uncle, who was an amputee, walked straight into the corridor all the way out. My mother’s first reaction was to check whether the cooker was switched off. So she went to the kitchen, which was a couple of metres away. By the time she walked round the table and started heading out the building collapsed,” he said.

 “My mother was buried totally except for her heel,” he said pausing to contain his emotions. “And my brother was covered up to his chest with stones,” he said adding: “When they cleared up the rubble the plates were still there. Flattened. With the food still there on the plates.”

Paul received the phone call and left his business lunch, heading straight to hospital. At about 5pm his mother passed away. “That’s where we started our battle,” he said.

Rita Vella, pictured with three of her seven children, died when her home collapsed on April 12 2000Rita Vella, pictured with three of her seven children, died when her home collapsed on April 12 2000

Picking up the pieces

“Thankfully my brother survived. My brother literally walked out of hospital with nothing but the clothes he had on. He still feels the trauma – he lived through it,” Mr Vella says. This, he adds, was a harsh blow for all seven siblings – Miriam, Carmen, Joe, George, Marthese (who has since passed away) Richard and himself.  

After the incident his uncle moved to a maisonette and his brother was reunited with his wife – something good that came out of the ordeal. But the family got no support.

“The government had mentioned a fund but in all these years I never heard of anyone getting any benefits for such cases. There’s nothing in place to support the victims. We had to keep chasing one department after the other.

“You lose everything. Luckily enough our mother had a habit of handing out photos – they’re all we have left. Everything else is lost. That was the place where we were all born, all apart from Richard. In fact, it was a family joke, that he’s not really one of us because he was born in St Luke’s and is not a real Sliemiż.”

Apart from dealing with the loss of their mother and the property, they had to face a legal battle. “Something needs to be done to ensure justice is served,” he says adding the two contractors got away with a fine of €4,000 each for gross negligence that resulted in the death of his mother.

Paul Vella speaking to The Times of MaltaPaul Vella speaking to The Times of Malta

The family was awarded €40,000 in damages by the Civil Court but the decision was appealed by both parties. Five years after filing the appeal, in April this year, the family got a notice from the courts giving them four days to pay €8,900 for the appeal to be heard. The family decided not to incur this expense and keep facing the courts – so they deserted the case.

“We are the victims. We also received a paper from court to pay €25 in legal fees or face legal action,” he says, then smiles as he recalls: “As kids we would go to Valletta often. One thing our mother always told us, as we walked past the law courts was: never go past that first step.”

He is sceptical about the new building laws: “It’s no use having all these regulations in place then we expect the resident, be it a 20 or 90-year-old, to check whether other people have everything in line. It’s a matter of enforcement. There should be a centralised authority to ensure everything is in place. And I wouldn’t issue the permit unless everything is in line.”

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us