Ring of fire

ringoffire“I want my life back, now!” was one of the chants heard at a teachers’ rally on Friday, when they protested against job transfers and sackings in the civil service. It’s been clear over the last three years that our daily comforts, as small as they may have been, are slipping away one by one and being replaced by uncertainty or, even worse, dead ends. To be alarmed by this is only human. We shouldn’t forget, though, that for some Greeks the wish of having their life back is not a slogan but the basis for their epitaph.

The death of three employees at the Stadiou Street branch of Marfin Egnatia Bank in central Athens remains one of the most shocking moments of this crisis. Coming on May 5, 2010, shortly after Greece agreed its first bailout agreement with the troika, the arson attack on the bank and the deaths of Angeliki Papathanasopoulou, 32, Vivi Zoulia, 34, and 36-year-old Nondas Tsakalis serve as one of the bookends for this crisis. When the other will arrive, marking the culmination of this exacting period, nobody can be sure.

In the meantime, Greece has to deal with the fallout from its dire situation and the truth is it hasn’t done that particularly well. The fact that the hooded arsonists who smashed the windows of Marfin Bank during an anti-austerity protest and then set fire to the building are still at large is symptomatic of the country’s failure to deal with some of its most obvious problems. That it is unable to provide justice for three of its young people denotes wider failings in caring for this generation. Bright, hardworking and foreign-educated, Papathanasopoulou, Zoulia and Tsakalis had much to offer but Greece, tragically, missed out. It is missing out in a similar way as more young Greeks with similar qualities and who have the skills to be agents of change abandon the country due to a lack of opportunities and eclipsing faith in decision makers.

A step toward recompense for the families of the three victims was made this week, when an Athens misdemeanors court handed sentences of between five and 10 years to Marfin’s CEO and two members of staff it considered to have contributed to the deaths. Some people were angered that Greece convicted three bank employees over a fire they did not start when it had not caught the arsonists who started the blaze. It’s certainly an unsatisfying way of handling the matter but one trial does not preclude the other.

The court heard that there were poor fire prevention facilities at the bank, that protective windows had not been installed despite complaints, and that staff had not been provided with a proper escape procedure. A Labor Ministry investigation conducted in 2010 found that the branch did not have a fire safety permit, did not conduct fire drills and had only one emergency exit, operated by a remote-control device that was hard to find in the smoke. Based on what was heard in court and the judges’ verdict, Papathanasopoulou, Zoulia and Tsakalis were abandoned to their fate.

Again, parallels can be drawn between their working environment and those of many others in Greece, where health and safety regulations are often ignored. Despite repeated measures to make Greece’s labor market more flexible since 2010, little time has been devoted to making workers’ safer.

The court’s decision was applauded by the victims’ relatives but whatever moral restitution they take from this decision must be surely tempered by the fact the perpetrators have not yet been brought to justice. Greece continues to fail those who have suffered the unacceptable and distressing consequences of its slide into the abyss. It is up to the authorities to correct this.

There is, however, an onus on all of us to ensure that more lives are not lost in such a senseless way. As we continue to mourn the lost potential and unlived lives of three young Greeks who died in the Marfin fire, we should also appreciate it is a minor miracle that many others have not lost their lives in such an abrupt way over the last few years as our anguish, anger and hate has poured onto the streets of Athens and other cities. Apart from Dimitris Kotsaridis, the 53-year-old construction worker who collapsed amid the tear gas in front of Parliament in October 2011, and at least two fatal attacks on migrants by suspected supporters of Golden Dawn, Greece has numerous broken bones and other ailments to count, but not deaths.

We should not underestimate how fortunate we have been. Between the self-gratifying destructionists bearing chunks of marble and Molotov cocktails on one side and the monolithic police armed with tear gas and batons on the other, too many lives have been put at risk. So, ahead of this autumn, when the government is likely to face a new round of protests, perhaps more intense than recent ones, we must find ways to defuse the tension that has been building since 2010. We have been fanning the flames of the Marfin fire for more than three years but this week’s court decision should provide the impetus for us to think about where this will lead. The increasingly virulent exchanges between New Democracy and SYRIZA, the poison of Golden Dawn and the exasperation felt by a substantial part of society are forming a combustible mix. If we are to respect the brief lives of Papathanasopoulou, Zoulia and Tsakalis we cannot abandon others to their fate. If we don’t take the chance to step out of the ring of fire now, the flames will engulf us.

Nick Malkoutzis


11 responses to “Ring of fire

  1. Nick, you are so right about not paying enough attention to worker’s safety, either by official authorities, employers, or employee representatives. As for the flames of violence, I strongly feel there is a lot hypocrisy from the extremes of our political spectrum. Although they present themselfs as protectors of the average citizen, they wouldn’t mind a few more deaths to go along their apocalyptic theoretic. Not many, but enough to say…”see I told you so… now vote for me and all that will go way”.

  2. Sorry Mr. Malkoutzis, you are confusing issues.

    This time the courts got it EXACTLY right and laid the blame squarely where it belonged. Of course the families of Papathanasopoulou, Zoulia and Tsakalis applauded the decision! The scandal is that the bank staff responsible for their deaths remain free on bail and are not behind bars for manslaughter and criminal negligence. Though they precipitated the event, the arsonists did NOT cause the deaths of these 3 young peope and an unborn baby.

    Yes, rioters setting fire to the facade of a building is reprehensible in terms of publc order and crowd safety. The fact is however that in terms of the safety of those inside, the blockage of the front entrance due to fire should have been immediately solvable. The solution is provided and strictly enforced by EVERY single European (and world-) planning department through the strict, unnegotiable laws governing emergency evacuation and secondary means of escape. The trigger of the event is technically unimportant: it could be internal fire or gas explosion, a fallen tree blocking the way, flood, a broken lock or any reason in which a main entrance is blocked. Secondary (or Alternate) Means of Escape is the single intractable constant in the design of all buildings and the first concern of planning permission. Public buildings have even more onerous provisions.

    In my view Greece’s failure to address OBVIOUS problems is not the relatively rare event of political arson but the everyday arrogance (it is certainly not ignorance), gross irresponsibilty and illegality displayed in the far from uncommon blocking of fire doors and removal of alternate means of escape from ALL levels : with entirely predictable, murderous consequence. In the case of the Marfin bank management one can add the rank stupidity of refusing to close the branch down early ahead of the riots. Who were they keeping the bank open for? Who makes deposits in the middle of scheduled chaos?

    The consequences of Turkey’s 2001 earthquake, in which 1000s of buildings were reduced to rubble exposed the criminal disregard Turkish developers showed toward quality of construction materials, and non-compliance with engineers’ designs. This was not the fault of Turkish building law or Turkish architects / engineers, but the ruthless pursuit of ‘black’ profits by the construction sector and willingness to be ‘bought’ by building inspectors.

    In comparison, weeks later, when the earthquake struck in Athens, very few buildings collapsed and those that did were almost entirely old, poorly built structures and sheds. This spoke volumes for our compliance with the law.

    Greece has an excellent Fire Safety code and Building code, responsible engineers and architects. No building is constructed here without correct fire provision, The blame lies squarely with the users who block escapes – and this includes the dangerous and illegal double locking of polykatoikia front doors through fear of theft. Remembering a front door keys is improbable in the case of panic, most often there is no time and very few fire scenes are ‘orderly’. Particularly when evacuating many people at once.

    Finally, as an architect watching the scenes in Syntagma that day on television, I was not worried for the people inside the bank since I assumed they would evacute from the back. (I DID wonder why the bank was open during a scheduled demonstration…). I was dumbfounded and horrified to discover that three people died. And knew exactly who was to blame.

    THIS is Greece’s shame – that unbeknownst to the poblic, escape routes are all too commonly locked or blocked and the public needs to be aware of this. No one living in or visiting Greece can count on safe evacuation. The urgent lessons of Marfin Bank are lost by focussing on ‘arsonists’. By doing so we endanger the public through lack of warning; and obscure the truth from our foreign critics – most of whom – quite rightly – could not ecen begin to envisage such a basic level of criminal irresponsibility.

  3. Further, it is absolutely shameful and criminal that Greek Labour inspectors – on discovering flagrant non-compliance with the fire code – did NOT immediately shut the premises down: as happens in every first world country.
    For this alone we deserve to be seen as a 3rd world country.

  4. Nick, you are absolutely right in that there are 2 parties that are to blame for this tragedy. Those who have already been judged and convicted but also those who set the fire. They are both guilty and both have to answer for their deeds. The suggestion that it is alright to set fire to any premises as long as they have all the prerequisite fire protections, seems to me just as criminal and even more so as there was intent to harm.

  5. Elenits, there may be truth in a lot of what you write, but stating that “the arsonists did NOT cause the deaths of these 3 young peope and an unborn baby” leaves me stupefied… It is such a nonsensical thing to state, that it undermines what follows. You write that we should be scared because “no one living in or visiting Greece can count on safe evacuation”; frankly, opinions like yours scare me much more.

    • @Hans B.

      Well I’m sorry on my part that you fail to understand the – yes – life and death importance of evacuation & safety laws that underpin every building- code and building operation-code and which the bank officers deliberately and knowingly broke, thus causing 3 deaths.

      Worse, they did this in a situation in which (1) every building fronting on Syntagma would be reliant on its rear exits, and (2) against the pleas of its employees, including those that died so needlessly.

      Of course the arsonists were the cause of the fire – but not the deaths. The court decision makes this clear.

  6. @Hans B.
    And yes, you should be scared of this visiting Greece because it appears to be a practise in large companies, especially companies that occupy a single building and do not have to justify themselves to other occupants.

  7. @Eleni, I do not visit Greece, I live in Greece. In the buildings where I have worked, there have always been safety drills, fire escape exercises, etc… But even in their absence, it is obvious that the gangsters deliberately setting a building on fire knowing that there are people inside the building, are murderers. Denying this simply paves the way for more ‘justified’ civil violence – something that the Greek left has been doing since the civil war…

    • Come on, this is just a partisan silly comment. As if only the Greek left was violent in the civil war — try reading some serious historical scholarship. Obviously, you have an agenda here.

      • I am an architect and urban planner, which is definitely an agenda. The first rule in urban planning is public safety and health. The first rule in architecture is physical stability of a building / fire safety. As architects we are held legally accountable for both and face loss of license and imprisonment in the case of failure.

        So yes this is an “agenda” of a type, totally independent of politics, and our profession’s equivalent to the Hippocratic oath.

        Your insistence on seeing this as “political” is absurd and only reflects your own political agenda – of whatever sort that would be, since no political party in existence would question the necessity of this!

    • I am glad that the buildings you work in are safe. I am glad to hear there are fire drills too, since I have only heard of them in non-greek organisations and schools.

      Arson is always evil. And a great crime. I have nowhere “denied” this as you claim.

      My point however is the same point made by the greek court and the families affected: the greater evil in this case – the evil that led straight to 3 deaths – was the sealing up of secondary means of escape. The deliberate breaking of this simple (and unglamorous and apolitical) law, designed solely to prevent death, led inevitably to manslaughter when emergency struck.

      Since you insist that by stating the above I am advocating arson and civil violence, I suggest you take your accusation directly to the court and families involved and argue your point with them.

      I have made my point ad nauseum and hereby retire from this discussion.

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