April 14, 2012

Greek Bombs Trouble Tarpon Springs On Easter

An inert Greek bomb, shown at actual size, is on display in the Tarpon Springs Heritage Center at Craig Park.

Jeff Klinkenberg
April 8, 2012
Tampa Bay Times

Nobody knows what will happen when Orthodox Greeks celebrate Easter next Sunday. Perhaps the holiday will be joyous with loved ones gathered to glorify the Resurrection with a feast of lamb. But perhaps, and this is what causes certain folks some sleepless nights, it might turn out to be another Greek-bomb Easter.

When the clock tolls midnight on Easter morning, homemade bombs sometimes explode along the Dodecanese Boulevard riverfront. Explosions shake buildings and break windows on Athens Street. Back in the neighborhoods, teenage boys toss bombs and run from the cops. It's a rite of passage that happens to be a felony.

But really, nobody ever knows what will happen until it happens in Tarpon Springs, population 25,000. This year, police hope, nothing louder than the cries of the yellow-crowned night herons will be heard down by the famous sponge docks. That will mean rambunctious teenagers have heeded the annual request of Father Michael Eaccarino, the pastor of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, to light candles instead of bomb fuses.

Bomb explosions during Easter season have been part of the Tarpon soundtrack for generations. It's a custom that goes back to where so many of the town's 3,000 Greek-American residents trace their roots: the islands of Kalymnos, Symi and Halki in the Aegean Sea. There, high-spirted Easter celebrants fling dynamite from mountain cliffs and occasionally blow themselves up in the process.

In Tarpon Springs an Easter bomb is typically made from shredded newspaper, twine, duct tape and powder purchased in a gun shop. There's more to it, of course. Just know the creation produces an impressive explosion. Even so, the ear blast is never enough for the most competitive bombmakers. Cpl. Scott Brockew, a Tarpon Springs police detective and Pinellas County's only bomb technician, once confiscated a homemade explosive about the size of a watermelon.

"Somebody was driving around with it in the trunk of his car,'' he said recently. "It contained 12 pounds of black powder. We took it to a remote spot and exploded it. From 300 yards away you felt the concussion in your chest. It left a 4-foot crater in the ground. Can you imagine if it went off in a crowd?''

• • •

Tarpon Springs, which became a Greek enclave in 1905, is one of Florida's great tourist towns. On Epiphany every January, visitors head for the bayou to watch Greek youths dive for a cross thrown by the bishop. Visitors throughout the year fill bags with gift-shop sponges and eat spanakopita, dolmades and baklava at lunch.

Some might argue that Easter bombs are as much a part of Greek culture as bouzouki music. Others, mostly people in law enforcement, would say that the occasional explosion in the downtown shopping district stopped being a quaint but noisy custom sometime after Sept. 11.

"It's a collision of folk customs with the American legal system,'' says Tina Bucuvalas, a Tarpon Springs folklorist who has sometimes been awakened by distant explosions early Easter morning. She never stops trying to understand the tradition of Easter bombs.

"Don't even call them bombs,'' an elderly Greek man explained to her recently in a casual conversation on the sponge docks. "Bombs are what al-Qaida makes in Afghanistan and Iraq. People here make their own firecrackers. You should call them firecrackers.''

He did not reveal his name, of course, another custom when the subject of Easter bombs arises.

"Americans celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks,'' he went on. "In Tarpon Springs, we celebrate the fact that Christ has risen from the dead with our own fireworks. It's the happiest day of the year.''

No kid, he grew up in Kalymnos and remembered stealing dynamite and building bombs with the powder as a teen. He carried his bombs to the mountaintop overlooking town, waited for midnight, ignited the fuse and heaved with all his strength. The explosion turned night into day, shook the mountain, shook the town below.

"My father was in church at the time,'' the retired gray-haired bomber told Bucuvalas. "He later told me that my bomb was so loud it made the old women weep.''

By tradition he passed on his Easter bombmaking skills to his American-born son. The son, now married with his own children, tells people the custom will end with him.

• • •

Male Floridians with more than a few wrinkles often think fondly about youthful adventures that may have included family summer trips through the Deep South where dangerous fireworks were legally sold — even to 12-year-old boys.

Back in Florida, the boys exploded their Cherry Bombs, M-80s and Ash Cans in back yards and parking lots without killing themselves, though everybody claimed to have heard of someone who had lost a finger or two. In 1966, the federal government outlawed the sale of the most dangerous explosives.

In Greece, Easter bombers accidentally kill themselves or innocent bystanders every spring. It has yet to happen in Tarpon, though not for lack of trying.

During the 1988 Easter season, a 20-year-old man waited too long to throw a bomb on Hope Street. The explosion broke his arm.

In 1991, police arrested a 14-year-old boy in possession of a 1-pound bomb.

In 1994, an 18-year-old was arrested for having a bomb. He wore a T-shirt showing a picture of three dead police officers sprawled at the feet of a man who was wearing a rat's head. "Dirty Rats,'' said the caption on the shirt. "Justice Is Served.''

Easter, 1996: A teenager was stopped driving on Dodecanese Boulevard because his passenger, a small child, wasn't properly restrained. The driver was arrested after two bombs were discovered inside his car. Later that night, police found a bag containing seven bombs on the sponge docks.

In 1997, a powerful bomb rocked Athens Street and did $3,000 damage to the National Bakery and the Greek Coffee Shop. The following Easter a bomb went off in the alley behind the famous Zorba's Greek Taverna. The front window shattered, whiskey bottles flew off the shelves and a $1,500 neon sign had to be replaced.

In 2000, after an enormous blast broke 13 windows along Athens Street, police arrested two 18-year-old boys. That Easter another bomb shattered the window at Paul's Shrimp House on Live Oak Street. On Athens Street, a bomb blew the bumper off a parked car and damaged the radiator.

In 2010, during the Easter Eve church service at St. Nicholas Cathedral on Pinellas Avenue, an illicit fireworks show, triggered by a remote control device, began on the roof of the 70-year-old structure and went on for 11 minutes.

Last Easter, fearing the worst, Tarpon Springs police Chief Bob Kochen requested helicopter help from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. Hovering over the cathedral, the pilot saw a suspicious package on top of the church kindergarten. It turned out to be a box containing a remote control device apparently intended to set off another fireworks show.

On the Greek orthodox religion's holiest night, the police chief ordered the church, filled with about a thousand worshipers, evacuated. Then, to the chagrin of many in the congregation, the Tampa Bay Regional Bomb Squad filed through the empty church with specially trained dogs.

The dogs sniffed out no bombs and worshipers returned to their pews. From the church courtyard, police heard the sporadic explosions of Easter bombs in the distance.

• • •

Detective Scott Brockew was born on the Fourth of July. "For years,'' he tells people, "I thought all those fireworks were meant for me.''

He's 43 now and has done police work since he was 19. One hat he wears in Tarpon Springs is "bomb specialist.'' "Nobody in law enforcement in other parts of the country can believe what we face here,'' he tells people.

Tarpon Springs has 49 police officers who know never to ask for a day off during Greek Easter. Every available patrolman is on the street, on foot or in their vehicle, watching and listening.

"It's a cat and mouse game,'' Brockew said recently. Some mice build bombs with long fuses. When the bomb explodes and the cats arrive, the mice are blocks away. Other mice ignite commercially purchased smoke bombs, toss their powerful Greek bombs and escape in the mist.

"I hate to even talk about this,'' Brockew said. "I don't like to give them publicity.''

Officer Barbara Templeton spent her first Greek Easter 25 years ago in a squad car. "Somebody rolled a bomb under me,'' she said. "When it went off it was so loud I thought I'd lost my hearing.'' Her boss sent her to the emergency room.

"At the time I was one of the few women on the force,'' said Templeton, now a captain. "My first Easter and I had to go to the hospital. It was embarrassing.''

The police have their customs, too. Every spring for at least a half century, the police chief has written a letter to the pastor of St. Nicholas asking for help keeping the city quiet. On March 15, Kochen sent his annual message to Father Michael and the Parish Council.

"In the interest of safety,'' the police chief wrote, "I am respectfully asking that the Parish Council partner with the police department to openly denounce the use of fireworks and homemade bombs . . ."

• • •

Devout Greek Orthodox Christians in Tarpon Springs shun meat and alcohol during Lent. So determined are they to honor their savior's sacrifice that they avoid dairy products, cooking oil and even sex. Father Michael, the pastor at St. Nicholas, is their leader. He's 62, tall, with gray hair. He was born in New York and raised in Miami. As a boy he threw a firecracker or two into a lake just to see what would happen. What happened was a big explosion and dead fish.

After college he ran a bike shop and still keeps his Bianchi at the rectory, though he never seems to find time for a ride. He was ordained in 1991 and served in South Florida, Washington and Denver. In 2006 he came to St. Nicholas, one of Florida's most beautiful churches, and heard about the Easter-bomb tradition. He had never heard of such a thing, at least in the United States.

At first he embraced the tradition. "Bang! It's a big celebration. Christ has tramped down death," he says. "It's a wonderful moment.''

He had second thoughts after hearing about midnight bombs that left craters, blew off car bumpers and broke arms. At a church service three years ago he held a baby above the congregation and asked, "What are we going to do if a bomb goes off nearby and harms this child?''

It turned out to be a relatively quiet Easter. But a year or so later an altar boy — an altar boy! — was arrested for having a bomb. In 2010 there was that unauthorized fireworks show that originated on the roof of a church building, which he did not approve of. He's all for avoiding a repeat of last year's police search of the church.

"We intend to cooperate with the police,'' Father Michael said. "But we want to express ourselves according to the old customs.''

Father Michael has a solution that he hopes will make everyone happy — the traditionalists and the safety conscious, too.

The Easter Eve service will go on as always. During the liturgy, all lights will be extinguished in church, except for one, on the altar, a lit candle.

Bishop Nikitas Lulias, who grew up in Tarpon Springs but now lives in Turkey, will be officiating with Father Michael's assistance. Bishop Nikitas will approach the lit candle and light his own. With that candle he will light the candle of someone else, who will light a candle of still another worshiper. Eventually the church will be lit by a thousand candles.

Then everyone and their candles will follow Bishop Nikitas and Father Michael outside to the courtyard.

"Christos anesti!'' the bishop will proclaim. "Christ is risen!''

And everyone in the courtyard will answer "Alithos anesti! He is risen indeed!''

And then, if everything works out, if they can raise $5,000 and all the permits are in place, a 10-minute fireworks show organized by the church will erupt. It will be a noisy manifestation of the congregation's overwhelming joy. And no one will get hurt.

And if the fireworks don't happen, well, it'll still be Easter and on that holiest of nights, Father Michael will try not to listen for explosions in the distance.

Read also: Tarpon Springs Explosion Rocks Greek Religious Celebration