Michalis Protopsaltis awarded for saving 80 refugees in the Kythera shipwreck

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66-year-old construction company owner, Michalis Protopsaltis, was honored in Athens on Monday for his invaluable efforts in saving the lives of the 80 refugees during the Kythera shipwreck earlier this month.

In a ceremony officiated by the Greek Minister of Maritime Affairs, Giannis Plakiotakis, Protopsaltis alongside others involved in the search and rescue operation, received awards from the Ministry of Maritime Affairs.

In a tweet, Plakiotakis wrote: “A big thank you to everyone involved in the search and rescue at Kythera. Thanks to their courage and solidarity, dozens of people were saved from certain death. This is Greece, which saves lives.”

In the incident, a vessel carrying 95 refugees had left Turkey on Monday, October 3, and was headed through Greek waters for Italy. Due to gale-force winds, the ship veered off course and eventually struck rocks, sinking off the Greek island of Kythera.

At the time, residents and emergency services rushed to help, using ropes and improvised slings to rescue 80 refugees, 13 of whom were taken to Kythera’s hospital.

Protopsaltis was pivotal to this effort, having dispatched a crane to the Kythera cliff top where he began saving, one by one, the 80 Afghan refugees scrambling for their lives in the choppy waters below.

Three hours passed before the last refugee was hoisted to the top.

When the last man was rescued, Protopsaltis told The Guardian that felt a pang of relief but also nausea at what he had seen: the men, women and children who had not been saved, who were screaming and shouting as they tried to scale the jagged cliff face.

Since the incident which occurred three weeks ago, the 66-year-old has been contacted by the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who telephoned to thank him personally.

“What we witnessed that night was hellish, absolutely frightful, something I never thought I would ever see,” Protopsaltis told The Guardian.

Michalis Protopsaltis on the Kythera cliff top. Photo: Roula Karagianni.

“Neither I, nor anyone else who was there, and there must have been around 100 of us, thought twice,” he said, adding that with the aid of ropes at least 20 had also survived.

“Nobody forced us to help. All this talk about Greeks letting migrants die in the sea has infuriated me because it’s not true.”

Protopsaltis’ heroism has nabbed global media attention, with his sisters, who live in Sydney, telling him they’ve seen him on CNN.

“All this talk about heroism is overblown. What we did was only human,” he said.

“In Kythera we always help people in need. From America and Argentina to South Africa and Australia there are Kytherians and, so, all of us have lived the experience of migration. I don’t know what has been happening further afield [in Greece] but we’d never let people drown.”

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