A burning passion for fireworks... | Josef Camilleri

Malta’s pyrotechnics tradition seems to be under fire, as questions about safety and noise/air pollution overshadow the spectacle of the traditional village ‘festa’. JOSEF CAMILLERI, President of the Malta Pyrotechnics Association, defends his lifelong love-affair with fireworks

Josef Camilleri, President of the Malta Pyrotechnics Association, defends his lifelong love-affair with fireworks. (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)
Josef Camilleri, President of the Malta Pyrotechnics Association, defends his lifelong love-affair with fireworks. (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)

It is often said that the passion of a fireworks aficionado can only ever be understood by people who have worked in places like the one we’re in now: the Santa Marija Assunta Fireworks factory, limits of Mqabba. How true is that impression?

Like all other pastimes, it has to be a passion coming from the heart. You could almost say it’s something you are born with – and when a passion is born inside you, it becomes like your mother. You love it and respect it that much. Part of it is down to the beauty of fireworks themselves. It’s a beautiful thing to work with and create: it requires great craftsmanship, and there’s an entire culture attached to it. When you come here to the fireworks factory, you find yourself at peace with the world. You are cut off from everybody, from the problems of life. We practically live our entire lives here: from eight in the morning till late at night, all year round. Now that Santa Marija is passed, we will start again in early October; and from then on, it’s ‘gas down’ until next year’s Santa Marija. We never stop.  It’s a big sacrifice we all make. In fact we’ve already started: we’re cleaning the fields, collecting the pipes... but when the first rains come and clean up the air, that’s when we will start working in earnest. All for one feast...

Unlike other traditional mainstays of village life, Malta’s festa culture seems to have retained its hold even over the younger generations. How do you explain this attraction among young people in particular?

Speaking for myself, I cannot confirm that youth involvement has either increased or decreased. But judging only by our feast, the amount of youths who are licensed to work in fireworks factories – who spend a year here, away from vices that may otherwise be harmful – is impressive...

They don’t just make fireworks: they are involved in the street preparations (armar), they do carpentry for the wooden frames of the ground fireworks (giggifogu)...  for instance, in the last few days there was damage caused by the rain. So they’re working to fix it: painting, cleaning, mending... they’ll spend a whole year working on the next festa. And it’s a great satisfaction to me, to see so many young people getting involved. On our part, we really can’t complain. I can only encourage them to continue, as our culture of feasts keeps them away from other vices that may be dangerous. It keeps them connected to the family; for here, it’s like a family. To me personally, it’s like paradise on earth.

It certainly is peaceful and secluded here; but beneath the peace there lurks a danger. At the end of the day, fireworks are explosives. Accidents happen. How do you respond to, for instance, calls to ban or limit fireworks on account of the danger posed to the public?

Everything has to be put into its context. When I’m walking in the street, I am in more danger than I am here. Because either someone will be on his mobile phone while driving, and might run me over... or even just walking in the street, the way drivers zoom past you is terrifying. They could hit you at any time. But let’s not condemn anybody: in this world, everything has its dangers. Everything involves a risk. Here is no exception. That’s why you have to stick to the proper procedure. Every day starts with a risk assessment of that particular day. If there is no abuse, and everyone sticks to the order of the seasons, with God’s grace there should be no accidents...

The Gharb explosion was a terrible tragedy, but it was six years ago. How many accidents have there been this year? Or last year? Let’s be reasonable: it’s getting safer, not more dangerous

What do you mean by the ‘order of the seasons’?

Everything has its proper time of year. For example, the mixing of certain chemicals should only be done in winter. In summer, as the air heats up, it is not safe to use certain chemicals for mixing.  You reduce the element of risk by seeing to it that you observe the basic norms of safety. And in fireworks manufacturing, there’s another issue: fire does not ignite on its own. It is always caused by an external factor. Now, we are all human beings; and in our line, the tiniest of mistakes can be fatal. But, thanks be to God, the number of accidents associated with fireworks is minimal, given the quantity of fireworks factories in Malta. And it’s going down. The same cannot be said for other areas: like traffic accidents, or diving fatalities, or people who go swimming and get killed by jet-skis. Of course, it would be better if there were never any accidents at all, but the reality of life is not that. Everything can be risky. But if you’re attentive, and take all the precautions, you can keep accidents to the minimum. Which is what is happening today:  accidents have decreased a lot in recent years; partly because today – unlike in former years – everyone who works in fireworks is a professional.

Yet when accidents do happen, they tend to be very serious. In 2012, an explosion at the Gharb factory left four people dead, and damaged property hundreds of metres away. In this year’s Santa Marija feast, debris from fireworks caused a fire at Maqluba...

And last week, a bridge collapsed in Genoa and killed 37. Meanwhile, people get killed on the road all the time. What do you do? Stop people driving? Or riding bikes, because they get run over by cars? Do we ban jet-skis? That’s why you have to put it all in context. The Gharb explosion was a terrible tragedy, but it was six years ago. How many accidents have there been this year? Or last year? Let’s be reasonable: it’s getting safer, not more dangerous. Now, whenever someone dies in a fireworks factory accident, to us, it’s as though we’ve lost a brother. But it doesn’t mean you throw away the entire tradition...

With regard to the apparent decrease in accidents: how have things been made safer, exactly? What is the difference between your modus operandi today, and six years ago or more?

For example, the licensing system has changed. Before there was only the ‘A’-licence, which permits you to mix chemicals, and ‘B’ and ‘C’ licences for other jobs. Today there is also a ‘D’ category licence, for people who have applied for a ‘C’ licence, but haven’t been given it yet. These people can now enter the firework factories and serve as apprentices to the more experienced workers – as long as they are in the presence of someone with a higher licence – so that when they go up for their exam, they will already have been apprenticed for a year. This is something the Malta Pyrotechnics Association, of which I am president, worked hard to get.

It’s what makes us Maltese. It’s our culture. And what a beautiful culture it is... how much we should be protecting it... just talking about it makes tears spring to my eyes


So before, only ‘C’-licence holders and upwards could enter the factory?

Yes. Part of the problem was that, not everyone who comes here is necessarily involved in the manufacture of fireworks. Some people come to work on the frames for the giggifogu, or to paint the decorations, etc. These people will not apply for a ‘C’ licence, because they have no interest in making fireworks. And in any case, they wouldn’t pass. But they need still a licence just to enter the factory. Our argument was, why not create a licence specifically for that category?  Why should we ban them? Most of these people don’t have anywhere else to work. That’s why we’re asking for another category – an ‘E’ licence – for people who have nothing to do with fireworks at all. What if someone who is simply a fireworks aficionado, or just a friend, wants to come here and simply have a chat and a coffee with us... or maybe bring us a few pastizzi... why shouldn’t he be able to walk right in?

But that concern doesn’t have much to do with safety. When it comes to the most dangerous parts of the job – e.g., mixing chemicals – how well regulated is the process?

In our dealings with authorities, the Malta Pyrotechnics Association’s position has always been to reduce the element of risk as much as possible. We’ve always made suggestions to improve health and safety standards. We never suggest anything that might give rise to abuse, because it’s simply not in our interest to have this sector badly regulated. Today, I can say that the fireworks industry is very well regulated. With regard to mixing, there are certain chemicals that are now banned: ammonium perchlorate, for instance. This was never suited to Malta; our association even asked to prohibit it from entering the country... that’s how much we care about safety. And a few years ago, we –  as an association – banned the mixing of potassium chlorate (KCL03) with metals such as aluminium. Now, only potassium perchlorate (KCL04) can be mixed. The difference is that KCL04 has less oxygen, making it safer. Potassium chlorate ignites at 350 degrees, while for potassium perchlorate the temperature has to be 610 degrees.  So we went for the safer option. And today, everybody has learnt these procedures. People now work only with limited amounts at one time, so that – in the event of an accident – it will be contained.

There is also a perception that some fireworks factories tend to work in secret, trying to hit upon innovative ideas that would be original. It is said that this practice (rumoured to involve ‘experimental’ mixing) accounts for some of the fatal accidents we have seen over the years. How true is this perception?

Let me put it this way: there is an element of ‘secrecy’, yes; but not in the way you suggest. One of the things we work on here are what we call ‘prints’: fireworks displays which show a ‘picture’. It could be a word formed by the fireworks - last year, for example, we created the ‘Disney’ logo. This year we managed to create the impression of a football player with a football. At other times it might be eagles, or dolphins: all sorts of things. Now, when you’re working on something like that, you’re not going to go around telling everyone how you achieve those effects. Even if everyone will work it out just by watching the show... because everyone’s become very bright at this sort of thing. Still, not many people do ‘prints’. Qrendi did it this year: they had a display of the numbers ‘1’ to ‘10’. And I congratulate them from here, as even if I’m from Mqabba, we’re all one family at the end of the day...

Apart from the accident factor, complaints about fireworks tend to focus on noise. While most appreciate a colourful fireworks display, people are less enthusiastic about ‘bombi’ that make loud explosions early in the morning. How do you respond to criticism about noise pollution?

Fireworks are not just about making ‘loud explosions’. That’s why there’s a lot of culture attached to it. You don’t only want to ‘see’ fireworks; you want to ‘hear’ and ‘smell’ them, too. And even the sound is regulated. When we’re talking about petards, you only have 10 minutes during which to let them off. And in the morning, you can only use six four-inch petards in those 10 minutes. Please note: I’m talking about petards (‘murtali’), not ‘murtaletti’ – the ones that sound like a drum-roll - which are much less noisy. Petards are explosions, it is true. And they sound twice as loud when the ground is wet. That’s why Valletta, the Three Cities and Sliema have a reputation for loud fireworks. In reality, they’re all the same – four-inch petards – but because it’s over the sea, and because of the bastions, they will echo and sound louder. But people think they’re special fireworks... because they don’t understand. It’s like that on the social media, too. Everybody talks about fireworks – especially when there’s an accident – but they don’t know anything. Everyone just speculates...

In fact, someone recently speculated that the smell of sulphur poses a health risk to the people inhaling it...

That’s not true. The smell does no harm. It’s not poison. In fact, I have just come back from an operation in England. I’ve been working with fireworks for 54 years; but the tests found nothing related to the chemicals. I even asked if there was any problem from inhaling firework smoke, and they found nothing. It’s just smoke... it’s not toxic pollution. All this is just empty grumbling, by people who want to create a controversy over fireworks so they can ban them.

Why do you think there is so much resistance to fireworks in Malta?

It’s only coming from a small minority. If you go to any festa in Malta and Gozo, you will see they all attract massive crowds of people. Not just from Malta and Gozo, but from all over the world. At our feast, we’ve had people from Holland, from the UK, from Germany... they come each year, and they’re fascinated by what they see here – the culture, the festi, the sea, the beauty of our country – and they cry and hug you before leaving. Malta’s fireworks culture is now global: in 2007, Malta won an international fireworks competition in Rome, against the world giants of pyrotechnics: Japan, the UK, Italy, Romania... we beat them all. And we did it with the highest score ever recorded. Nobody else could take the trophy out of Italy; but we did. It’s a great honour for Malta. And today, our fireworks are sought after by tourists from everywhere. Malta’s entire economy would suffer if we were to ban these things. It’s not just tourists; think of all the band members who make a little money, or stevedores who find extra work putting up street decorations; we ourselves buy lots of wood, and paints, and drapery for the pavilions...  the kiosk owner makes money... the shops make money... before the feast, a woman might buy a new dress, or a man a new pair of shoes...  there’s a whole chain of economic activity associated with the festa. It’s what makes us Maltese. It’s our culture. And what a beautiful culture it is...   how much we should be protecting it... just talking about it makes tears spring to my eyes. I’m not joking: look, there are tears in my eyes... [Pause] So come on, let’s at least be a little tolerant towards each other.