Rescue workers worked around the clock in a race to get to Jean Paul Sofia beneath the rubble of the large Corradino factory that collapsed that December morning, finally finding his body “at the farthest and most dangerous point”, a court heard on Tuesday.
Peter Paul Coleiro, director general of the Civil Protection Department, gave a step-by-step account of the rescue operation that kicked off the minute firefighters at the station close to the site of the incident, heard “a loud noise” signalling the collapse.
Within minutes, news of the collapse reached the station directly by people who went to report.
Loud noise triggers early ‘snatch rescue operation’
"A snatch rescue” operation was triggered, said Coleiro, as he ran the court through the various procedures adopted by the rescuers who worked under “an imminent danger of further collapse” at the site of the large factory, a third of which was still standing when the operation kicked off shortly after 10am.
Coleiro was the main witness when the compilation of evidence against developers Matthew Schembri and Kurt Buhagiar, project architect Adriana Zammit and contractors Milomar and Dijana Jovicevic, resumed on Tuesday.
As the race against time began, rescuers’ first efforts were to “snatch” survivors from the rubble, not following strict protocols and thus working under more dangerous conditions.
The dust from the massive collapse had not yet settled and the risk of further collapse was ever-present but their aim was to get the persons trapped in there, out of the rubble as quickly as possible.
One of the workers walked out of the site unassisted when the rescue party arrived.
But four others were still trapped, recalled Coleiro, who was conducting operations onsite that day and explained how the foreman could not provide clear information about how many people were caught beneath the rubble.
“There was a language barrier and he was also under shock,” said the witness.
Three groups of firefighters worked to pull out three other workers on the north side of the factory.
There were buried under concrete and stones.
The last survivor was in a more precarious position since he was lying over a roof that could collapse at any moment.
One third of the basement was still intact but under the weight of all the rubble, the damaged planks could give way.
Then the last survivor told rescuers that there was another person who, just a while before the collapse “was next to him”.
Missing person procedure
The operation then changed as rescuers sought to locate the “missing person” constantly working on the premise that the person was still alive.
Information was gathered from “various streams”.
Sensitive microphones were placed in different spots across the construction site to catch any signs of life.
Occasionally rescuers called for “perfect silence” to catch any sound or movement.
A specially trained dog led the handler towards the north side of the factory, close to the stairs that were the core of the collapsed building.
But the dog seemed “unsure and not confident”, not barking with certainty to locate any survivors.
Besides, that area was too risky, explained Coleiro.
Within the first hour, the missing person was identified as Jean Paul Sofia.
People on site did not provide that information.
Rather, Sofia’s wallet, containing his ID card, was retrieved from a van parked near the collapsed building.
Footage from cameras at the building next door was also checked, confirming that Sofia had entered the factory “minutes before the collapse”.
The victim was also located on site through mobile localisation data.
But as operations continued, a CPD architect alerted rescuers to the “very dangerous chance of imminent collapse”.
“There was a double wall that was not properly attached… it fluttered in the gusts of wind,” explained the witness, confirming that he had personally attested that.
Forging a corridor to Sofia
Under such circumstances, rescuers could not “underestimate any stone”, as they “forged the most likely path” taken by the missing person.
The process followed was one of “selective debris removal” as they removed stone by stone, dismantling storey by storey of the still-standing structure and using smaller drones to inspect the core.
“We suspected that Sofia might have been trapped in the staircase.”
Large chunks of metal hampered their efforts.
A mixer and a concrete pump-that was damaged and hence could not be moved-also got in the way.
Working under the instructions of the department’s architect, workers dismantled a wall as darkness fell and lights were switched on.
At one point, “something that did not match the background was spotted”.
That was a false alarm.
But hours after the collapse, a human figure was spotted some three metres away from the core, under the last-dismantled roof.
“It was the farthest point away from the rescuers and the most dangerous part,” recalled Coleiro.
An emergency doctor and forensic officials confirmed that the victim was “deceased”.
He was pulled out from the rubble and identified by his anxious parents who were constantly following the operation, the witness concluded, as Isabelle Bonnici, seated beside the victim’s father, wiped away the tears.
Earlier in the sitting, the mother wept silently as court expert Keith Cutajar presented two technical reports and data he had extracted from the victim’s white Samsung phone.
At the end of the session, the court, presided over by Magistrate Rachel Montebello, was informed that one of the workers who was scheduled to testify was currently receiving medical treatment abroad.
Parte civile lawyer Joe Giglio explained that the witness was the father of Dijana Jovicevic and was currently in Croatia but was expected to return to Malta.
The case continues.
Inspectors Paul Camilleri and Antonello Magri prosecuted. Lawyer Stephen Tonna Lowell is counsel to Zammit. Lawyers Franco Debono, Arthur Azzopardi and Jacob Magri are counsel to Schembri and Buhagiar. Lawyer Timothy Bartolo is counsel to the contractors. Lawyers Joe Giglio and David Bonello are appearing on behalf of the victim’s family.