A man died and three were hospitalised when a fireworks factory in Kirkop exploded on Saturday morning, in blasts that were heard across the country.
Police, medics and Civil Protection Department firefighters were all called to the San Ġużepp fireworks factory on Triq Ħal Far just after 7am to respond to the blasts.
Two men were inside the factory at the time. One of them, aged 45 and from Kirkop, made it out alive and was rushed to Mater Dei Hospital by ambulance for medical treatment.
The second, 64-year-old Leonard Camilleri, was not so fortunate.
Police were initially reluctant to confirm that Camilleri was dead, saying rescuers had not yet been able to trace him. But at around 10.45am, a police spokesperson told reporters that Camilleri had died in the blast.
Camilleri previously served as the factory's licensee, and sources told Times of Malta that he had only recently returned to making fireworks after he retired from the hobby some years ago.
He had also survived a similar blast 10 years ago.
The San Ġużepp band club announced Camilleri's death before the police did, and asked people to pray for his loved ones.
Rescue efforts were delayed due to a number of small explosions that continued to be reported inside the affected building, well over an hour after the initial blasts.
Efforts were further complicated by torrential rain and hail, which began to descend just as the rescue operation got into full swing. More bad weather is expected later in the day.
A police spokesperson said it was still too early to determine what had sparked the blasts.
Three others hospitalised, two injured
Police said at 1.30pm that the 45-year-old who escaped the factory blast suffered slight injuries in the explosion.
Two farmers who were close to the fireworks factory at the time were also taken to hospital for treatment. A 63-year-old was treated for minor injuries while a 72-year-old was released without requiring treatment. Both are from Żurrieq.
MPs Owen Bonnici, Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi and Toni Bezzina were among those seen at the explosion site on Saturday morning. They posted messages of condolences on Facebook, as did fellow MP Julia Farrugia Portelli, who is from nearby Qrendi.
A police hearse was brought to the scene at around 11am. Magistrate Claire Stafrace Zammit is leading an inquiry into the incident.
People reported hearing two separate blasts - a small one followed by a much larger one that left windows shaking.
That second blast was powerful enough to be detected by seismic activity monitoring devices, which are traditionally used to measure earthquakes.
Video footage shot from near Malta International Airport and provided to Times of Malta showed a large plume of grey smoke rising into the air.
A Kirkop resident reported "a vaguely sulphury smell" in the air. A passenger at the airport said the explosion "shook the whole terminal building."
The blast was heard across significant swathes of the country, stretching from Marsaxlokk to Naxxar and even Sliema.
It is the second fireworks factory explosion reported this year, after a blast in June at a factory on the outskirts of Mosta left two men injured.