I’ll never forget the image of my manager being hauled out of his office with a pistol against the back of his head and the horror on his face. It’s the sort of image that remains imprinted in your mind’s eye forever.
I’ll also never forget that deep horrible feeling of panic and dread, the kind which makes your insides feel like they are about to burst with the panic of realising that any second might be your last, and the utter helplessness of doing anything about it.
Being part of a hold-up is traumatic. Even where no one was physically hurt, the trauma can last for years.
I was operating as a cashier at the Balzan branch of HSBC in 2007 on the day where some €1 million were stolen by hooded and heavily armed men.
I recall that day with a strange mixture of both blurriness and extreme clarity where certain images will remain burned into my memory forever. The branch was busy and the vault had stacks of densely compressed currency as we were just one month away from the official currency changeover. Heavy commercial coin-packs were stacked ready for distribution to commence.
I was tending to a customer and counting cash for his withdrawal when I heard a commotion in the lobby near the main entrance to the Branch (directly in front of me and behind the customer).
I saw three men wearing balaclavas in the centre of the lobby. In those split seconds there was some confusion where I wasn’t quite registering the gravity of the situation, like it’s some sort of joke. And then the reality of the situation hits home.
I found myself and my two fellow colleagues next to me standing up and the next thing I remember is seeing our manager being pulled out of his office with a large handgun to his head. At that point your mind starts racing and I turned into the back office area and warned the staff there what was happening but there was little to no time to react.
The fear and shock of that day will remain with me forever. It is something you only ever watch on TV or see in movies, but you can’t ever really truly understand the depth of emotions that overwhelm you during an event like that.
The whole ordeal felt like it didn’t last longer than five to seven minutes. The heist felt like it was carried out with considerable planning, precision and a certain level of “professionalism”. They seemed to know exactly what they were doing, where they needed to go, and what they needed to do. One man armed with a shotgun corralled the lobby staff and customers together, and three men breached the secure area. A colleague of mine in the lobby recalled afterwards how the man with the shotgun acted as though he was very agitated. My colleague feared that even one shot would have murdered a couple of people in one go.
Luckily, nobody was killed. The men escaped with the loot and we seemingly never heard of them again… until recently.
One thing I remember quite clearly from that day is that security personnel from HSBC’s head office arrived well before the police did. You would think that the police would have taken seconds to get there, given that there’s a police station right opposite the bank. But it was closed at the time. I can’t ever really recall that station being open but it always struck me how brazen you need to be to hold up a bank that was literally metres away and right opposite from a police station.
I remember being told that there was a hold up at a store in the south of Malta that same day so perhaps it was a connected diversion which is why the police took longer to arrive on the scene.
I can’t remember exactly, but I believe it was a couple of days later when all the staff were called to the police depot to be interviewed. It felt as though it was a very serious investigation but I do recall the type of questioning which seemed to intimate that the heist was aided by an insider. In fact, I say we were interviewed but it felt more like an interrogation where even my movements that day, where I had left the branch twice to the shop next door was questioned as out of the ordinary. The questioning made me feel as though any one of the staff, including myself, was a suspect. In hindsight, I would certainly agree with that approach as the robbers appeared to have a certain level of intimacy with the layout and procedure of the bank.
In the weeks after the hold-up, my colleagues and I were nervous and jumpy. I recall one time where a fellow cashier accidentally dropped a heavy coin pack on the hard wooden platform we were on and the shock of the sound on its own was enough to cause us to take a few minutes to clear our heads and calm down. Even the sight of armed police officers escorting the cash van and the unloading of cash in the vault, pistol in hand was enough to create that sense of panic and deep unease.
I never thought about writing about this experience. However, the recent developments in court and on the media regarding alleged suspects, and persons who have apparently been granted a pardon for their involvement in these (and related) crimes really do shock me.
People sometimes speak about hold-ups like they’re victimless crimes, simply because no one was physically hurt or killed, just because it was the bank’s cash. You read some comments of people online who dismiss the ongoing inquiries which have unearthed new information years later on some of the involved persons as being “a waste of money” or “a politically motivated attack”.
They seem to forget that there is no such thing as a victimless crime. They seem to imagine that we all just went home and carried on with our lives as if nothing had happened. They forget that such experiences can have a long-term impact. I remember some of my colleagues never quite looking the same after that day. Personally, the real shock of those events hit me some two days later where I remember being at a wedding party of a friend one minute and reduced to a shaking mess the next.
Sometime later I requested to move to another section of the bank, away from customer-facing roles as did some of my colleagues, especially those who unmistakably shook up by the ordeal.
I thought about them specifically when I read on the news that three of Malta’s most hardened criminals appear to be alleging the involvement of an acting Minister in the 2010 heist at the HSBC HQ. Here are three hardened criminals who we now know to be involved in some of Malta’s most shocking crimes and murders, naming a sitting minister and a former minister as being accomplices, as they try to obtain a pardon for their involvement in the seemingly unconnected hideous crime involving the flat-out cold-blooded murder of a mother and journalist at the apparent behest of other equally cold-blooded (though more powerful and richer) criminals.
Even the concept of a pardon for such crimes which leave an indelible mark and impact on the victims is painful to watch. I want to see justice for those affected by that day, but I can’t even comprehend what the relatives of Carmel Chircop and Daphne Caruana Galizia want for the vicious and inhuman murder of their loved ones. A full pardon equates to a clear injustice that is terribly frustrating and difficult to witness, even if such persons have turned into prosecution witnesses.
And this is where it becomes trickier. A pardon of sorts in the case of a complete dead-end investigation may be seen as a useful tool in order to catch “The Big Fish”, those at the top of the hierarchy, those who ordered, financed and stood to benefit from such actions. In the case of the 2010 attempted heist from HSBC HQ which resulted in a shootout, three criminals who appear to have admitted participation are pointing at a possible insider at the time, who now happens to be a sitting “honourable” member of parliament and senior minister. These accusations appear to be credible accusations, even if coming from criminals.
In this case, I find the lack of political action quite incredible. A sitting minister, under serious suspicion of aiding an actual bank heist, and associating with apparent career criminals… and no action is taken in his regard? The accusations simply shrugged off as hearsay? You begin to wonder whether we hold the highest governing institution in the country with any sort of ethical line or standard at all.
Any normal business would at the very least suspend their employee on pay, if they were even remotely accused of being involved in such a crime, let alone when three persons’ entire premise of potential ‘freedom’ (as a result of a pardon) may rest on their telling the absolute truth. The failure of the so-called leaders of this country to act in this regard, to make any decisions to safeguard our reputation, to even comment on the situation without entering into some ridiculous political spin is utterly intolerable. Their weakness to take some, even the barest minimum action, or at the very least to be seen as taking some action, is reprehensible.
Have we collectively become so immune and numb to such news that we are simply ok with the situation? Ok with having a sitting minister under serious suspicion of being involved in a bank robbery? Ok with having our leaders seemingly shrug it off and “wait for further developments” before any action is taken? Ok with having some of our politicians and members of parliament under serious suspicion of involvement in theft and murder? Ok with their backtracking, change in story versions and selective amnesia?
I can remember being questioned about the events of that day at the police depot quite clearly, even though it occurred some 14 years ago. Being questioned at the police depot or testifying about such matters is not an experience one simply forgets about. I, therefore, wonder with some incredulity how the “honourable” minister seemingly forgot he even testified about the matter.
It would be comical if it weren’t so tragic.
Likewise, I wonder with equal amazement how certain businessmen and politicians alike seemingly ‘forget’ about certain facts and details that they would have absolute intimate knowledge of when being questioned by police or magisterial inquiries. I wonder whether they realise how ridiculous they sound when claiming to “forget” facts as though it were last week’s lunch.
Justice needs to be served and certainly needs to be seen as being served.
I remember that day some 14 years ago quite clearly. Sure I don’t remember the mundane activities prior and after with absolute clarity, but I can certainly recall the event, the police questioning with crisp clarity. I don’t think it requires staring down the barrel of a gun in order to do that.
The author wanted to remain anonymous for safety reasons.
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What do you think of this person’s experience?