Updated at 2.20pm, adds government statement
An apartment block in Mellieħa collapsed on Saturday morning, prompting a rapid rescue operation as firefighters scrambled to make sure nobody was caught beneath the rubble.
Rescuers pulled an elderly woman out of the four-storey building and rushed her to hospital, but nobody else was hurt and the rescue effort was halted late in the morning.
The building on Main Street, close to the former Shoppers Supermarket, started collapsing at around 6am. It was still falling half an hour later. A neighbouring property is under construction.
There were just two flats in the block, which locals said was built some 20 years ago. One of the flats was a duplex.
Civil Protection Department personnel began searching debris at the site after receiving reports from at least one witness who said they had heard screams soon after the building caved in.
An elderly woman who was inside one of the apartments at the time was fortunate to be standing in a part of the block which did not collapse. CPD personnel took her out of the block and handed her to paramedics, who took her to Mater Dei Hospital.
The police later confirmed that she had only been slightly injured in the collapse.
A drone scanned the area from above while rescue dogs were deployed to sniff out any traces of life beneath the collapsed bricks.
CPD officers brought a bulldozer from a nearby construction site to the scene of the collapse, to help clear debris and speed up the search.
Searches intensified when police received word that a woman and child had been staying in one of the collapsed apartments and may have been trapped under the rubble.
They later established that the two had left the apartment earlier in the morning to catch a flight at Malta International Airport.
CPD officers however continued digging through the debris to ensure nobody who could have been walking by at the time was trapped.
The search was called off as soon as it was established that no other people were trapped.
Third collapse in three months
Saturday morning’s incident immediately prompted comparisons to a similar disaster in April, when an apartment block collapsed in Guardamangia, and is bound to raise further questions about building and construction safety standards.
Fortunately, nobody was injured in the Guardamangia incident.
Following that collapse, the Chamber of Architects had pointed to “fragmented” building regulations as part of the problem, while NGOs like Flimkien Għal Ambjent Aħjar had lashed out at “cowboy” developers.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had urged people not to use that incident to blame the construction sector as a whole and said he would be waiting for an investigation to be concluded before passing judgment.
The back wall of an 18th century house at It-Tokk also collapsed during development in April 2018.
A few months later, a warehouse store in Mrieħel caved in in the middle of the day. Thankfully, nobody was hurt in the incident.
Magisterial investigation underway
In a statement, the government expressed “concern” at the incident.
Professionals involved in the sector would have to bear responsibility at law, it said, adding that a magisterial inquiry and police investigations were ongoing.
Victims had been offered assistance and would continue to be aided as needed, the government added.
In its statement, the government recalled that a new Malta Construction and Building authority was in the process of being set up. The authority would consolidate and update existing building and construction legislation.
Responsibilities would be clarified and streamlined through legal changes, the government said, bringing the various responsibilities of stakeholders involved in the construction process under one legislative roof.
The updated legislation would also seek to review and define with clarity third-party rights, including those of neighbours.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat later said that he would be summoning construction sector representatives and stakeholders for talks next week, to see how safety could be improved.