Yesterday morning at around six two containers of ammunition – part of a stockpile of 98 containers confiscated in 2009 from an Iranian ship heading for Syria – exploded at the navy base near Zygi. Twelve men were killed: the Commandant of the Navy, the commander of the base, an NCO from OYK (the Cyprus SEALS), twin brothers doing their national service, and six firefighters who were part of a crew that had been called out to deal with a brushfire an hour and a half earlier. The base was destroyed, and the new power station next door – responsible for delivering 40% of the Republic's power – was so badly damaged that it will have to be rebuilt, and much of the island was without power yesterday. The airports and hospitals ran on emergency generators and the desalination plants have been switched off. Nearby houses and villages were extensively damaged. Sixty-two people were injured: two remain critical.
The explosion was about 50 miles from us, and we didn't hear it. We had a short powercut in the immediate aftermath, and a haze of smoke reached us at about 10 a.m. Other than that, so far we are unaffected.
Rumour control worked overtime yesterday, but today some things about the case seem to have crystallised. The Defense Minister and the head of the National Guard have resigned. The President has sent his condolences to the families of the dead. Funerals are happening today. The National Guard is busy building firebreaks around all its bases and ammunition facilities.
The Cyprus Customs seized and impounded the cargo of the Cypriot-flagged vessel following the urgings of the American and Israeli governments, and against the wishes of the National Guard leadership who insisted at the time that they lacked the facilities to store the munitions, stored them at the Evangelis Florakis Naval Base at Mari. American, British, and German offers to remove, store, or help destroy the munitions were refused as the Cypriot government did not want to upset negotiations with the Syrians. Despite numerous reports from the Base Commander and other senior officers stating that the containers were deteriorating and that urgent action needed to be taken, nothing was done. And a brush fire, so common during these hot summer days, triggered a catastrophe – the only possible consolation being that, but for the integrity of the base commander (who ordered hundreds of conscripts packed into trucks and evacuated rather than sending them out to fight the fire) and the early hour (a nearly empty motorway rather than one packed with commuters), could have been so very much worse.
As usual, in a community as small as Cyprus, everyone is either affected by an event like this or knows someone who is. Our family got off lightly: Best Beloved's brother was due at the base for training with OYK at 0700 – he arrived an hour after the blast and spent the day there cleaning up. BB himself drove past on the smoke-shrouded, debris-strewn motorway on his way to work at 0730. Stelios, the Big Ones' friend, nearly finished now with his military service, had trained with OYK: one of his instructors and two of his friends are dead.
'It's a wake-up call for all those guys who think they're safe doing National Service here,' said Sophia at lunch today. 'This is Cyprus. It's supposed to be safe here to be in the army... It's not like we've got wars or anything. They're all crapping themselves now, digging trenches round the bases and making sure that everything's properly stored...' I don't agree. The army has plenty of ways to hurt you in peacetime, and incompetant politicians can hurt us in war or in peace.
What I'm left wondering – and no pundit that I've read has taken on this question – is what happens now with the other 96 containers? They're presumably still in the same place, still sealed, still exposed to the summer sun, and even more unstable than ever... 'Budget cuts', according to the press, was the reason that funds were denied to build any sort of a shelter. Let's hope that the budget can stretch to safe and efficient disposal before another avoidable tragedy strikes.