TARPON SPRINGS — Authorities evacuated St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral during an Eastern Orthodox Easter service Saturday night after finding a long strand of illegal fireworks on the roof of the church preschool, Tarpon Springs police said.
Police estimated at least 1,000 people were evacuated from the church at 36 N Pinellas Ave. after deputies with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office spotted the device atop the nearby preschool around 8:30 p.m.
"It was a sophisticated device," said Tarpon Springs police Chief Robert Kochen. "Whoever did this wasn't an amateur."
After the device — affixed to a remote control detonating device — was dismantled and the church was checked out by bomb-sniffing dogs with the Tampa Bay Regional Bomb Squad, parishioners were allowed to return around 11:30 p.m., Kochen said.
The incident came less than a month after Kochen sent a letter to church officials reminding them that fireworks and the homemade explosive devices known locally as "Greek bombs" are illegal.
Greek bombs, typically made by putting gunpowder into a cylindrical device like a toilet paper roll, attaching a fuse and wrapping it in duct tape, are a long-standing local tradition that have damaged property and injured handlers in years past. The devices are commonly set off in the city during Pascha, the Greek Orthodox celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Over Easter weekend, police heard several Greek bombs, but by the time officers arrived, the culprits were already gone, said Capt. Barb Templeton. "I was in Tarpon Springs myself, and I heard at least five explosions," she said.
The device found Saturday night was not a Greek bomb, but was nonetheless illegal, Kochen said.
"It's not acceptable because it's a safety issue with all the people in that area," he said. "Worst-case scenario … what if we didn't evacuate and somebody detonated it and set the church on fire with all those people inside?"
Kochen requested the Sheriff's Office fly over the church Saturday night because last year someone used a similar setup, with a remote control detonator, to let loose a huge fireworks display near the church. No arrests have been made in that case.
On Saturday night, Tarpon Springs police found a second-floor office in the preschool that contained a hatch to the roof. A ladder was seen inside the office. The hatch was open, but the office door was locked, Kochen said.
No arrests have been made. An investigation is ongoing and church officials have been cooperative, Kochen said. The Rev. Father Michael Eaccarino, dean of St. Nicholas, could not be reached for comment Monday.