Heart attack claims life of heroic coast guard officer, 44, who saved thousands at height of refugee crisis
He became the face that personified Greece’s uneven battle to protect lives and human dignity at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015-2016, when hundreds of thousands of refugees were making the perilous crossing from Turkey’s shores to the island of Lesvos on their way to Europe.
An ordinary hero, the life and career of 44-year-old coast guard officer Kyriakos Papadopoulos – immortalised in Daphne Matziaraki’s Oscar-nominated documentary “4.1 miles” about the refugee crisis in Greece – was abruptly cut short on Tuesday night when he died of a heart attack.
As the captain of the coast guard patrol boat PLS 602 based in Mytilene, Lieutenant Papadopoulos was personally responsible for rescuing thousands of refugees and migrants from the waters of the Aegean. An ordinary man plunged into the midst of the refugee crisis that erupted in 2015-2016, he rose to the challenge and became a symbol of the country’s collective determination to value human life, wherever it may come from.
His tireless efforts and selflessness, marked by a high sense of duty undismayed by long hours and low pay, earned him accolades in Greece and even saw him walking the red carpet at the Oscars and visiting the United Nations, where the film was screened in 2017.
His actions had inspired Matziaraki to come to Lesvos and make her film, among others capturing the harrowing moments of a shipwreck in which large numbers drowned on October 28, 2015 and the desperate efforts of the coast guard officers to save as many as they could.
“Moments of personal weakness are a luxury we cannot afford. A few miles away are people that need our help. We will have time to weep,” Papadopoulos had said in statements in 2017, describing his experiences. Himself a child of a refugee family uprooted from Asia Minor, an ordinary working-class boy that joined the coast guard, Papadopoulos and his crew were behind every press release referring to search and rescue operations in that part of the Aegean in that crucial two-year period.
Papadopoulos’ 5,000-plus rescues in the Aegean, which earned him awards from the Greek state and the Athens Academy, had also amazed the former Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann during his visit to Mytilene, who thought he had misheard when he asked the father-of-two how many lives he had saved.
In a statement of condolence for his death, Shipping and Island Policy Minister Fotis Kouvelis said that Papadopoulos had been an officer the coast guard was proud to have among its ranks and one that demonstrated how Greece perceives the values of humanism, solidarity, equality and peace, “how in the midst of the economic and social crisis, [Greece] remained faithful to the humanitarian values of its culture, which must also be the values of Europe.”
Lieutenant Papadopoulos’ funeral expenses will be paid for by the Lesvos Municipal Coast Guard Fund, according to an announcement issued by the island’s coast guard on Wednesday. The family has asked for donations to the “Smile of the Child” charitable organisation, in lieu of funeral wreaths.