Lieutenant Kyriakos Papadopoulos made headlines internationally back in 2015 for rescuing more than 5,000 migrants crossing from Turkey to Lesvos in small rubber dinghies.
Papadopoulos, 44, named “the hero of the Aegean” and awarded by the Academy of Athens and the Greek State, suffered a fatal heart attack in the early morning hours of Wednesday, the coast guard said in a statement.
The man, a Lesvos native was of migrant background himself, descendant from a Greek refugee family who landed on the island from Nikomidia, Turkey, in 1922.
“The moments of personal weakness are a luxury we don’t have. A few miles away, there are people needing our help. We do have time for tears,” he had told the media when asked how those moments in the sea had affected him.
Merchant Marine Minister Fotis Kouvelis praised the late Papadopoulos for his humanitarian values and efforts commanding his patrol boat to so many rescues in dangerous conditions.
“Papadopoulos showed Europe what the values of humanity, solidarity, equality and peace mean to Greece”, Kouvelis said.
“He showed and highlighted the value of human life.”
A short documentary by Daphne Matziaraki titled ‘4.1 Miles’ was dedicated to Papadopoulos and his heroic efforts last year; the film which follows him in real time was nominated in the category Best Documentary Short Subject at the 89th Academy Awards.
“As of today, Lesvos is poorer,” Spyros Galinos, the island’s Mayor, wrote on Twitter.
Papadopoulos was survived by his wife and two children.