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Dead Naval Commander Is Local Hero

Commodore Andreas Ioannides is a hero after he saved sailors' lives by evacuating them out to sea just before the three-kiloton explosion at Evangelos Florakis Naval Base on July 11th, said local residents.

Twelve people - including the commander and his second-in-command - were killed in the blast yesterday. According to witnesses in the community, it would have been many more had he not taken action.

Because of the culture of secrecy around the naval base, a Kalavasos village resident who is a butcher spoke out on condition of anonymity.

"My son works at Vassiliko electricity plant. He got a call yesterday from a friend of his who works in the naval base who told him that the commander sent all the sailors out to sea just before the explosion. For me this man is a hero," she said.

It was common knowledge in the local community that the containers full of confiscated munitions on the naval base were dangerously close to exploding. Eyewitnesses from Mari village spoke of the containers expanding outwards from the intense heat of July in Cyprus. But by that time, authorities would have had massive problems moving the containers, which were already at a critical point. And the personnel at the naval base kept tight-lipped, knowing full well they would have been considered traitors if they had spoken out in public.

According to the butcher, there were actually two explosions when the containers finally blew. The first one was the biggest, and it was followed a few seconds later by a second, smaller explosion.

"Thank God all the explosives were destroyed in the blast, there are none left now," she said, her comment speaking volumes about the anxiety that local residents have been living with since the containers arrived in the area in 2009.

Desperate evacuation attempt

Friends and family of personnel working at the naval base received desperate phone calls in the hours leading up to the blast.

"One of my friends has a farm on high ground and his relative who works at the base called him and warned him to take his children and leave immediately," said the butcher.

That farmer and his family had a lucky escape because large chunks of red hot metal rained down on fields around Zygi and Kalavasos. Kalavasos village is located around three kilometres from the naval base and partly protected by low foothills. The butcher and her family, however, live in a part of the village that is not protected by foothills. When the munitions went off at 5.55am on July 11th, the family were shaken to their core with shock.

"We thought it was an earthquake, but there were no aftershocks, just two loud booms and the house shaking. My son's front door was blown into the house and all the windows were broken. Even the tyres on his car blew out from the shockwave," she said, adding "we saw a big mushroom cloud over the naval base."

Government tests have ruled out the possibility that there was radiation from possible radioactive material in the munitions containers, which were confiscated from a Cypriot-flagged ship on its way from Iran to Syria in 2009. But public opinion has swung strongly against the government, and trust in its policies has vanished.

"They (the explosives) should never have been there in the first place," said the butcher.

The day after

The butcher and other small business in Zygi village have replaced their broken glass and restored order to their shelves. Still, she cries and wipes her eyes as she thinks about how close her own son came to death.

"Another half an hour and he would have been at work at the electricity plant," she said.

The day after the explosion, all access to the naval base and electricity plant was restricted. A police officer guarding the plant said: "We are carrying out an investigation with experts from Greece."

Damage to the power plant from the blast was so extensive that it has been completely shut down and there will be island-wide power cuts for two hours per day for the foreseeable future.

But here these problems are seen as mere inconveniences compared to the real losses suffered by families whose loved ones died in the blast. There are twelve families mourning for their sons who died in yesterday's tragic events. There are twelve men who no longer have a future.

"Windows can be replaced," says the butcher as she slowly cleans her new pane of glass, "peoples' children don't come back."

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