AN EMOTIONAL Larnaca district fire chief told the court during his expert testimony yesterday about how he found out his son was among the six fire fighters killed in the 2011 Mari blast.
Fire chief Michalis Theofilou testified during the trial of six men – former ministers, army and fire officials – who are facing charges relating to events leading up to the munitions explosion at the Evangelos Florakis naval base.
Seven sailors and six fire fighters were killed, among them fire fighter Panayiotis Theofilou, Michalis Theofilou’s son.
Michalis Theofilou – who was a station master at the time – was asked to report for duty around half an hour after the blast, at around 6.30am.
The news reported that people had died and his son was not answering his phone, which was out of character, he said. Theofilou was among those responding to the incident with the disaster response squad EMAK. But when he called EMAK, no one would say what happened.
Theofilou tried Larnaca general hospital but did not find his son so he went to the station, where he discovered his son had driven the response vehicle earlier that morning.
Theofilou then went to the naval base where his son had gone, and asked some officers in a room whether his son was dead but no one responded, Theofilou said. Among those officers was one of the accused, deputy fire chief Charalambos Charalambous.
Theofilou stepped outside and found the assistant fire chief at the time crying, but he also would not respond to the question of where Theofilou’s son was.
Theofilou then asked if all six fire fighters were dead, and the man told him they were.
Another officer then approached him shouting: “They are all to blame, they should all quit”. Theofilou said he then tried to get to the scene but there was a lot of debris and he couldn’t get any further, so he got out of his car and walked. From a distance, he saw that the vehicle his son had been driving was crushed, and he saw sheets placed over bodies.
“I did not go closer [but] went back to the car and told the driver, let’s go to the station, I want to go home,” Theofilou said.
Theofilou was not testifying as a victim’s father but as an expert in handling fires involving chemicals and explosives.
He had earlier testified in that capacity and spoke of how he found out his son had passed away because the prosecution had asked him to.
Though Theofilou said he was able to carry on, the defence asked the court to call it a day, asking for more time to prepare.
The munitions at Mari had been exposed for over two years, in 98 stacked containers, confiscated by the state from a vessel going to Syria from Iran as per UN sanctions.
Theofilou said that an emergency response guidebook – used as reference in Cyprus and available in electronic and paper versions in all fire stations – states that in the case of a munitions’ fire, everyone including fire fighters should keep a safety distance of at least 1.6km.
This is to protect people from flying debris, he said. He said also that normal fire extinguishing methods should not be used.
Those safety precautions were not followed on the day of the blast.
“The key to dealing with a serious incident is being informed,” said Theofilou who is also suing the state for over €2 million in damages.
The defendants in the Mari trial are former foreign minister Marcos Kyprianou, former defence minister Costas Papacostas, former National Guard deputy chief Savvas Argyrou, former fire service chief Andreas Nicolaou, deputy fire chief Charalambos Charalambous and former disaster response squad (EMAK) commander Andreas Loizides.
They are accused of causing death by want of precaution, and homicide by gross negligence in relation to the 13 deaths.
The trial continues today.
By Poly Pantelides