The first tragedy since 1800 that claimed young lives was the Vittoriosa magazine explosion which occurred on July 18, 1806. The magazine was located close to Porta Marina and the explosion killed around 200 people, and more than 100 others were injured.

At that time, the British forces in Malta were preparing a stock of ammunition to be sent to Sicily and the magazine was filled with 370 barrels containing 18,000 kilograms of gunpowder, as well as a number of shells and grenades. The exact number of children who lost their lives was never mentioned. However, according to the Vittoriosa cemetery burial records, 14 children aged from a few months to 15 years were buried there.

The entrance to the Franciscan Minors convent in St Ursola Street, Valletta.The entrance to the Franciscan Minors convent in St Ursola Street, Valletta.

The worst disaster involving children that Malta has ever suffered was the 1823 carnival catastrophe. In order to keep children away from the confusion of the carnival celebrations in the streets of Valletta, the Franciscan Minors used to invite boys between the ages of eight and 15 from the poor families of Valletta and Cottonera to attend the church services. After this event, bread and fruit were distributed to them at the Franciscan convent in St Ursola Street, Valletta.

On Sunday, February 11, 1823, a procession of children was formed in Floriana which made its way to the convent. On that day the children arrived at the convent an hour later than the previous day and it was already sunset when the boys entered the vestry. As it was customary to do, the vestry door was kept locked when the food was distributed to prevent those boys who had received their share from entering again into the corridor. However, on that day the door of the vestry was forced open by grown-up people who entered the church without being invited and forced themselves into the corridor where the children were. As soon as the friars found out what had happened, the vestry door was locked again.

It was dark by now and when the only kerosene light in the corridor was accidentally put out the large crowd of children and adults were left in the dark. To make matters worse, those at the front did not see the flight of eight steps at the opposite end of the corridor and many boys fell on top of each other. The shrieks of the children were soon heard by those distributing the food, and assistance was summoned to get the boys out of the half-closed door. Some people, after trying in vain to get the boys out of the door, rushed into the church and obtained the keys of the vestry which was then opened. However, these efforts came too late and 110 boys died of suffocation.

Accidental explosions also claimed the lives of a substantial number of children in Malta and Gozo. The first such accident happened on March 29, 1903, when eight children went to pasture a flock of sheep near Delimara Fort. On entering the fort the children noticed some defective unexploded bombs that were due to be carried on a barge to be dumped into the sea. Hoping to find explosives for use in their black powder pistol, the children tried to open one of the bombs. The result was a massive explosion that kiled four children – Generoso Carabott, Ġużeppi Vella, Salvu Mercieca and Franġisku Sammut. Luckily two children survived the explosion. 

The Civilian World War II Dead Roll of Honour includes a number of children, among them four from Sliema, whose tragic death could have been avoided. On Sunday, April 9, 1944, Herbert Camilleri informed the Sliema police that an object that looked like a sphere, which he suspected to be a mine, was floating in the sea a few metres from the foreshore below Tower Road, Sliema. The duty sergeant took immediate action and instructed a constable to proceed to the spot indicated by Camilleri.

The foreshore in Tower Road, Sliema, where the floating mine exploded on April 11, 1944.The foreshore in Tower Road, Sliema, where the floating mine exploded on April 11, 1944.

Out of curiosity, the children tampered with the suspicious object and it exploded, killing four boys outright

After taking a close look at the suspicious object, the constable proceeded to Tower Road where he met four naval officers and asked them to accompany him down the beach to give their opinion whether the object was a buoy or a mine. After picking up the object, the naval officers declared that it was not a mine. Taking no risks, the constable rolled the object further up the beach and proceeded to Camilleri’s house from where he phoned the station sergeant.

Later that afternoon, a police inspector proceeded to Tower Road. However, he did not go down to the beach to undertake a close examination of the object. Arriving at the conclusion that the object was a buoy, the inspector took no further action and the suspicious object was left on the beach. The inspector also failed to report the matter to his superior officers at the Police War Headquarters.

Two days later, at about 11am the object was spotted again by six boys who went to play on the beach below Tower Road. Out of curiosity, the children tampered with the suspicious object and it exploded, killing four boys outright, namely 15-year-old C. Frendo, five-year-old George Debono, 11-year-old Herbert Giorgio and nine-year-old John Giorgio. Frank Giorgio, 12, and Victor Debono, 12, were taken to Bugeja Hospital for treatment.

Francis Bezzina, who died in another fireworks-related accident in Għargħur on September 8, 1951.Francis Bezzina, who died in another fireworks-related accident in Għargħur on September 8, 1951.

During the disciplinary proceedings against the police inspector, it was established that he had failed to undertake a close examination of the object and also failed to report the matter to police headquarters. The inspector was found guilty of negligence and was severely reprimanded.

More children lost their lives in the first air disaster in Malta of the post-war period – the Rabat Wellington aircraft disaster. Among the civilian victims in this disaster were three-year-old Marija Galea, her sister, three-month-old Madalena, two-and-a-half-year-old Vincenza Maranci, 11-month old Ġużeppi Maranci, 14-year-old Karmena Vella and 18-month-old Vincent Vella.

On Friday, April 4, 1946, at about 11.15am, a 19.68-metre Vickers Wellington B Mk bomber crashed in the built-up area of St Publius Street, Rabat. The bomber had two radial engines and a fuel capacity of 3,409 litres, with an additional tank of 1,136 litres. Four crew members and 16 residents died in the incident, a high peacetime death toll, and others were injured. Eighteen houses were destroyed or damaged and had to be evacuated, leaving 72 families homeless.

The naval aircraft had taken off from Ħal Far Royal Air Force airfield, and although it was said that smoke was seen billowing from the plane before the crash, the magistrate’s inquiry report said otherwise. It was also said that the pilot had tried to make a forced landing in the fields below Tal-Virtù to avoid hitting the church and the school, just 150 metres away from the air crash area. 

Anton GambinAnton Gambin

Children younger than 15 were also victims in the fireworks-related accidents. The first such accident happened in Għargħur on September 8, 1951. Thirteen-year-old Francis Bezzina lost his life when he placed in a tube a firework he had found the previous day and tried to set it off.

Six-year-old Toni Formosa from Fontana, Gozo, also lost his life after an explosion at the Catholic Action Centre where fireworks were stored. The accident happened on August 19, 1955, and Toni’s father was also injured. Meanwhile, on August 29, 1947, 14-year-old Filumena Attard and her nine-year-old brother, George, were killed at Xlendi when their father, Ġużeppi, tried to open an explosive float bomb.

Eight-year-old Manwel Bartolo was killed and five others were wounded on June 1, 1960, while playing in a field at Gudja. Someone had placed a box containing petards in the field and the children tampered with the explosive devices found in the box and there was an explosion.

At Għaxaq on August 15, 1963, 14-year-old Mario Dimech lost his life when an iron mortar tube exploded and a piece of iron struck his head. Dimech, together with four other children of the same age, were watching fireworks from a parapet wall at some distance from where the fireworks were being set off.

Gregory GambinGregory Gambin

In another fireworks accident on June 25, 1968, 11-year-old Carmelo Rapa of Xewkija, Gozo, lost his life when he tried to open a petard that he had found the previous day. It was said that Rapa intended to make a pipe bomb with the explosive material contained in the petard.

On July 15, 1974, Gozo was once more hit by tragedy when at Ta’ Kerċem, 14-year-old Anton Gambin and his 12-year-old brother, Gregory, lost their lives near the parish centre. Earlier that day a group of children found some petards in an empty well and some of them decided to make a pipe bomb from the explosive material taken from the petards. Unfortunately, something went wrong when the fuse of the pipe bomb was ignited and Gregory lost his life on the spot. Anton was seriously injured and died in hospital some hours later. Two other children were also injured.

On January 13, 1963, in a quarry at Ta’ Kandja, limits of Mqabba, 15-year-old Ninu Borg and his cousin, 10-year-old Peter Psaila drowned in the rainwater that had collected in the quarry. The accident happened when the children were using a part of a large cable reel as a raft to go from one side of the quarry to the other. The reel overturned, sending Peter into the water. Unfortunately, the boy did not know how to swim and when Borg jumped into the water to save his cousin he met the same fate.

The Kerċem parish centre close to where Anton and Gregory Gambin lost their lives in an explosion on July 15, 1974, when they tried to take material from petards they had found in a dry well.The Kerċem parish centre close to where Anton and Gregory Gambin lost their lives in an explosion on July 15, 1974, when they tried to take material from petards they had found in a dry well.

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