1990 Esmeralda tragedy: daughter demands justice 24 years since father’s death

A magisterial inquiry that still has not been completed, and a DNA test that must confirm the body of the skipper of the Esmeralda: why are his family still waiting for justice 24 years since the tragedy at sea?

Lilian Cassar, the daughter of the skipper of the Esmeralda.
Lilian Cassar, the daughter of the skipper of the Esmeralda.

Additional reporting by Daniel Mizzi

Lilian Cassar lost her father in the Esmeralda tragedy, the shipwrecked yacht that resulted in the disappearance of two men off the coast of Sardinia in 1990. But 24 years later, Cassar and the rest of her family still await justice and solace, with many questions remaining unanswered and doubts over whether the tragedy and the disappearance of the two men was caused by negligence.

On 7 July 1990, her father, John Schembri and Wilfred Mamo disappeared when the Esmeralda sank 20 miles off Sardinia. Two other men, the yacht's owner Carol Calleja, and his friend Manuel Grech, were rescued on a dinghy two days later.

Over the time, Schembri's family has learnt to live with the pain of losing a caring husband and father, but they have never accepted the fact that the magisterial inquiry into his death was never concluded.

Their greatest source of grief is the Maltese authorities' mysterious failure to order the exhumation of a body discovered 41 days after the tragedy, and buried on the Italian island of Linosa.

The body was discovered by a fisherman and photos were taken by the island's parish priest before being buried on the island inhabited by around 6,000 persons.

One of Schembri's son-in-laws, Noel Demanuele, reached the island to identify the body and confirmed that the body was Schembri's based on photographic evidence and a wristwatch found on the body.

The family confirmed that the clothes found on the body, including a blue anorak and a Seiko watch found on the body belonged to Schembri. To this day the watch shows the 8 June date, one day following the tragedy.

Despite pleas by forensic expert Anthony Abela Medici to have the body exhumed and tested to confirm the identity which were accepted by inquiring magistrate Noel Scicluna, these tests were never carried out.

"All we are asking for is to have the body exhumed and tested to confirm the identity. Then other things will follow, step by step. However, the hardest part is not having a grave to visit," Lilian Cassar told MaltaToday.

Asked what could have caused this inertia, Cassar says that the authorities' attitude changed after the 1992 election, when the home affairs minister Ugo Mifsud Bonnici was replaced by Louis Galea.

"We think that with the reshuffle of ministers, the case stalled. Mifsud Bonnici took great interest in the case and was very supportive. However, once he was no longer responsible for home affairs, the case came to a baffling halt."

Moreover, the experienced Anthony Abela Medici was unexpectedly removed from the case and Cassar says that the forensics expert was left puzzled by the decision.

The news this week that the relatives of the 1995 Piper Lance accident victim Philip Farrugia were awarded €288,000 in damages from two companies and the heirs of the pilot responsible for the incident, brought a mixture of hope, anger and sadness to Cassar.

"The news of the Piper Lance incident gave us a glimmer of hope," Lilian says, adding that above all, her family, including her 76-year-old mum, Alfreda, want to have the Linosa body tested and returned to Malta.

She added that in the next few days she would contact her lawyers to pursue all available legal avenues.

Not only have Schembri's family been deprived of a DNA test to confirm the body's identity, but they have been left in the dark over the magisterial inquiry for almost 20 years.

Cassar is convinced the tragedy could have been avoided and suspects that the inquiry can explain the death of her father and Mamo.

As we sit at Cassar's house - which also carries the name Esmeralda - her husband Joseph reminds her that the night before he set sail, her father, who was the yacht's engineer and skipper, told them: "I'm not happy at all with the boat's conditions."

On being reminded of this last memory of her father, Cassar says: "I remember vividly that my father was concerned at the lack of servicing, especially on the life rafts which had not been serviced for years."

Coupled with yacht owner Carol Calleja's insistence on setting sail on the fateful night, despite warnings of a heavy storm, she strongly suggests that negligence paid a part in the men's disappearance.

Cassar has contacted the Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his wife Michelle over the case, pleading to have the case resolved once and for all. She has been reassured that the government will look into the matter and make sure that justice takes its due course.

However, many questions remain unanswered, especially in regards to the way the authorities handled the case and the inconsistencies which emerged from the survivors' version of events.

The fateful day

Upon returning to Malta, the yacht's owner, Carol Calleja, who is the only living survivor of the tragedy, recounted how the engines went dead as the result of flooding in the engine room.

Cassar claims had Calleja cancelled the trip, the incident would have never occurred. "But he was adamant on setting sail to ensure that he met some important guests in Cagliari," Cassar says.

Calleja has said that upon seeing the yacht sink, the men opted to take the dinghy rather than the life raft, which was later discovered in an inflated state by the Italian authorities, together with other parts of the yacht. The then 49-year-old businessman said that the yacht sank in a matter of seconds, however he allowed Mamo to dive into the sea to bring Schembri on board the dinghy.

Shouldering his responsibility as skipper, Schembri - familiar with the Esmeralda for 17 years - made sure that the other three passengers were safe. But Calleja had claimed that Schembri was also hesitant about getting off the yacht.

Schembri's daughter however says the body found in Linosa was wearing a life jacket. "I believe that he did not make it, because the life raft did not inflate."

Calleja had said he saw Schembri move to release the life raft, when Mamo dived into the sea without a life jacket to reach the dinghy carrying Calleja and businessman Manuel Grech, who has since passed away, when it started drifting away from the yacht. While the yacht sank in seconds, Calleja insisted he was confident that Mamo had reached the yacht again and that he was hopeful the two men would be found alive on the life raft.

The family got to know about the tragedy on an Italian TV broadcast. Calleja was confident her father would survive, telling her mother they would soon throw a party in his honour upon his return home. "This gave my mum and the family a glimmer of hope, however as time went by we all realised, including my mum that he would never return," Cassar said.

So far her attempts to discover whether her father, as skipper, had eve been insured by Calleja have proved futile, explaining that before setting sail the yacht owner was heard discussing the yacht's insurance policy. But any insurance claim cannot be lodged by the family before the body buried in Linosa is scientifically tested, Cassar said.

This would indicate that the yacht and its crew might have been insured, however Cassar and her family have only been offered false hope and grief while being denied their rightful longing to see the case closed and justice done. 


another attempt to make a good deal from the situation.
" But 24 years later, Cassar and the rest of her family still await justice " Franco Debono was SOOOOOOOOOOOO right.