Jean Paul Sofia: After collapse building left standing was balanced on ‘a quarter brick’

Civil Protection Department head gives account of operation to find and rescue Jean Paul Sofia from Kordin collapse

Jean Paul Sofia was killed in a construction site accident last December, after a three-storey building he was working at collapsed during construction works
Jean Paul Sofia was killed in a construction site accident last December, after a three-storey building he was working at collapsed during construction works

A court has been told how officers from the Civil Protection Department had used drones and sniffer dogs, braving the imminent risk of further structural collapse, in their efforts to find Jean Paul Sofia amidst the rubble of the construction site he had been working on.

Sofia died at a building site on December 13 2022, aged just 20 when the three-storey structure he had been working on collapsed during construction works. Five other men - three Albanians, a Bosnian and a Maltese worker - had to be rescued from the rubble by members of the Civil Protection Department.

Peter Paul Coleiro, Director, Civil Protection Department gave an account of the rescue operation which eventually led to the discovery of Sofia’s remains, as the compilation of evidence against property developers Kurt Buhagiar, 37 from Naxxar and 38-year-old Matthew Schembri from Birkirkara, 35-year-old architect Adriana Zammit from Żabbar,  Serbian contractor Milomir Jovicevic, 39, together with his wife and company co-director Dijana Jovicevic, 38 from Bosnia and Herzegovina, continued before magistrate Rachel Montebello.

The five defendants are pleading not guilty to charges of involuntary homicide and causing grievous injuries to five workers who were at the site when the building collapsed.

Schembri is also accused of having falsified a signature on the project’s commencement notice – an official document that must be submitted to authorities before works can begin.

Zammit is additionally charged with failing to conduct the works in line with the established industrial practices and standards.

Schembri, Buhagiar and the Jovicevic couple are further accused of committing various breaches of occupational health and safety rules.

The victim’s mother followed proceedings from the public benches, quietly wiping away tears as Coleiro described the attempts to rescue her son.

Rescuers braved risk of further collapse

The witness explained that even though there was a risk of further collapse, CPD officers had identified people buried under the rubble and intervened to rescue them.

The initial information they received was that four people were trapped under the rubble. “The last person rescued was in a precarious position. Where he was, he could have fallen another storey into the basement, which could collapse under the added weight of the rescuers.

“At the same time, we were trying to gather information about who had been there. The foreman was not giving me clear information, giving numbers which didn’t make sense… he could have been under shock. I was asking how many were working inside and he said there were four other times five. He was not reliable.”

But the last person rescued told officers that there had been another person inside the structure before it came down. “In spite of the language barrier, he told us that a few minutes before [it collapsed] he was next to him.”

As a result of this information, search and rescue dogs were sent in, and specialised ultra-sensitive microphones were deployed in the hope that they would pick up sounds made by survivors and allow the rescuers to triangulate their position.

“The dog gave us an indication… he tried to move towards the North of the site to the stairs area. But he was hesitant because he is trained to search for survivors … he didn’t give us a clear signal, but tried to go around. The dog was waiting for his handler to come to him, but it was too dangerous.”

In the meantime, the police had opened up Sofia’s van, which they confirmed was his from the victim’s wallet which was still inside. All this contributed to the understanding that the missing worker was still in the area.

The remaining ceiling structure was carefully removed by the rescuers who then sent airborne drones inside through windows, to check every floor.

Parts of the unstable structure were being supported by only “a quarter of a brick”

Coleiro told the court that structural engineers he had consulted with had explained to him that the building’s core could have collapsed at any point in time. “Their message was that it was in such a bad state that we couldn’t safely access the area, nor could we safely bring the remaining structure down.”

One double wall that was not anchored had begun to move in the wind, causing the rescuers to fear a further collapse.

CPD officers, stationed not far from the construction site, had heard a loud noise at around 10am but there was initially no indication of where it came from, he said. “The first call [for assistance] did not come from 112 but directly to the station.” In this case there was a risk of further collapse, but they identified people buried under the rubble and intervened to rescue them.

The combined information from the van, CCTV footage and the search and rescue dog indicated that the victim had gone inside the site shortly before it collapsed.

Assistant Police Commissioner Mario Haber had then informed the witness that cell phone location data also put Sofia in the area.

Many factors were at play, he explained and digging haphazardly risked crushing survivors.

“You don’t know where the victim is and you cannot underestimate the importance of every single brick removed, because the victim could be underneath it. We tried to forge a path, a corridor, towards the area where the victim was likely to be.”

As the sun started to set that day, the CPD were still operating with the mindset that the person might be alive, he said, which limited the speed of the recovery effort. “There were parts of the structure being held up by only a quarter of a brick,” he added.

Approximately three metres away from the building’s core, after the final ceiling was removed, a human figure was seen in the basement below, amongst the debris.  “He was at the furthest point from us, which was also the most dangerous.”

“A rescuer went down first. It was clear that Sofia was deceased, he reported to his superiors. An emergency doctor was sent down too and confirmed that the young man was dead. His parents were asked to identify the body.

Adriana Zammit residence is raided by police

A police constable who had participated in the search of Adriana Zammit’s residence together with court experts, testified next. Electronic devices and physical files had been retrieved during the search, he said. “She asked for a lawyer but then she decided not to call him,” he said, as Zammit smiled wryly and shook her head.

Cross-examined by Stephen Tonna Lowell, he affirmed that the suspect had been informed of her right to speak to a lawyer and was then given a phone number for a lawyer, but she had refused to call him. The lawyer suggested that the court appointed experts had been speaking to Zammit at the time, but the witness was unable to recall.

The case continues next month.

Police Inspector Paul Camilleri is prosecuting, together with Inspector Antonello Magri.

Lawyers Joe Giglio and David Bonello are assisting the Sofia family.

Lawyers Franco Debono, Arthur Azzopardi, Steven Tonna Lowell, Jacob Magri and Timothy Bartolo appeared for the defendants.