Lieutenant Christian Vella said that the day Gunner Matthew Psaila died, he was undergoing routine army training. Vella did not know the medical conditions of the soldiers.
Vella said: “I used to ask the soldiers about their health condition. Apart from that I knew nothing about their health. The day Psaila died, before we got into the water we asked the soldiers if they had any medical condition as the water as cold, but no one said anything. I only got to know that Psaila did not know how to swim when we were in hospital and I heard his mother shouting that her son did not know how to swim.”
Lieutenant Christian Vella and Lance Bombardier Marvick Peregin are charged with negligently causing the death of 19 year old Gunner Matthew Psaila on 13 February 2009. The compilation of evidence continued in court on Friday. Psaila died of hypothermia three days after a training session where the soldiers got into very cold water.
Vella told the court that the C Company of the Armed Forces of Malta is actively involved in missions overseas and has been to Greece, Somalia and Georgia. It also provides security services when foreign dignitaries visit Malta, helps out in flood relief services and in cases of hostage taking.
Vella’s role is to train the 80 soldiers in C Company. On 13 February 2009 he was training his men at Chadwick Lakes. They were following an exercise prepared by HQ and so he was obeying orders from above. He said the training was basic and the soldiers had to march through Chadwick lakes to learn how to operate as a team.
He said this kind of training had bas been going on for 15 years. That day the soldiers had to go through water which was 11 degrees Celsius. Vella said that the day before army officers visited the Chadwick Lakes to remove any dangerous objects and to reduce the risks that soldiers had to face. They also decided that the soldiers would carry less equipment to make things easier for them.
“I remember that day there were 29 soldiers undergoing training. When we arrived at Chadwick Lakes the soldiers were divided into three units and put under three instructors. One of the instructors was Marvick Peregin.
“I explained to the soldiers what was going to happen and asked them if they all knew how to swim as we were going to go through deep water. No one said anything. The soldiers started doing warming up exercises.”
The soldiers then split up in three units under their instructors who asked again the soldiers if they had any problem with the training exercise they were to undergo and no one said anything. When they were getting into the water, Gunner Galea said that sometimes he had problems in the seas and Peregin told him to stay near him.
He said that when the first two units got into the water, shouting was heard. “I saw Gunner Galea shouting in the water that he was feeling very cold. We got him to dry land and put him in a sleeping bag. At that point I heard Peregin shouting and the other two instructors, Borg and Scerri went near him. Peregin said he had a person missing and then we noticed that Gunner Psaila was nowhere to be seen.”
Gunner Psaila was found and brought up; they called the accident and emergency section at Mater Dei Hospital and took him there. Vella said: “When we were there I heard his mother shout that her son did not know how to swim.”
Vella said that after this incident the army told him to continue training soldiers but this kind of exercise was discontinued. He said that after the Prime Minister ordered an inquiry into what happened, certain recommendations were made, including swimming tests for those who apply to join the army.
Vella said that what happened affected him and his family. “I am very angry that while I was doing my duty I am being charged with Gunner Psaila’s death, and not the army.”