By Poly Pantelides
The Cyprus Mail
CYPRUS, Greece — Even key navy officials including fire safety personnel were kept in the dark over the contents of the containers held at the Evangelos Florakis naval base that exploded in July 2011 killing 13 people, Larnaca Assize court was told yesterday.
The head of the navy's communication department at the time, Greek national Theodoros Groutsis, told the court that when he saw flames coming from some of the 98 containers in the early hours of July 11, the day of the blast, he deduced that the containers held gunpowder.
When Groutsis heard the navy commander and one of the blast's victims, Andreas Ioannides, asking for helicopters to extinguish the fire, he told him, "you can't extinguish gunpowder with water, let's go."
Ioannides refused, saying he would stay behind to co-ordinate fire fighting efforts and asking Groutsis to mind the safety of the officers in the camp, and to keep requesting helicopters for assistance, the court heard.
"I knew from experience that it was gunpowder. I never learned anything about the containers' contents from any official documents. I never saw anything in writing, nor did I see any official document stating that the containers should be doused with water," Groutsis said.
The emergency response guidebook, ERGO, advises against using water where gunpowder is concerned. ERGO advises halting traffic and evacuating the area within a radius of 1.6 kilometres.
As the fire started spreading, some firefighters at the naval base's gate asked Groutsis just moments before the blast what was happening and what the containers' contents were.
"Neither the firefighters nor the army officers knew exactly what was in the containers," he added.
When the blast took place, Groutsis, who was in a basement within the naval base, felt it as a great earthquake.
"We could not communicate with anyone for a long time. Later we kept looking for the navy commander but he would not answer his phone," Groutsis said.
The camp's fire safety officer at the time, Thomas Papas, said that he was never told what to do in the event of fire or an explosion by the navy commander, Ioannides, or the naval base commander, Lambros Lambrou, who also died in the blast.
"In my opinion if we had had any instructions we could have removed the gunpowder from the containers and have spread them out," Papas said.
But he added that although he was told on the day of the blast to douse the containers with water, he had pointed out that there was no way they could do that with the number of people on site.
From August 2009, when Papas was transferred to the naval base, no one discussed fire safety procedures, he said.
"We would only visually check the containers, we had no jurisdiction, nor did we discuss the containers," Papas said.
Seven sailors and six firefighters were killed from the munitions' explosion.
The trial's defendants 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 charged with causing death by want of precaution, and homicide by gross negligence in relation to the deaths of the 13 people.
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