Greece wildfires: pursued by an inferno, they ran into the sea as their town burned and 80 died
Residents tell of hellish ordeal in the seaside town of Mati, where many victims burned just metres from the sea, while others died in the waters where they sought refuge from the flames
A heavy silence hangs over the burnt-out car wrecks and charred animal remains in Mati, a small coastal town east of Athens which on Tuesday was a picture of ash-covered desolation.
Fires have killed at least 80 people in this area, the authorities say, about a third them on the same plot of land.
The scorched bodies of 26 victims at a single villa were found huddled in groups of four or five, including small children, said Vassilis Andriopoulos, a Red Cross rescuer on site.
Perhaps they were families, or groups of friends, or strangers helping each other “entwined in a last attempt to protect themselves as they tried to reach the sea”, which was only 30 or 40 metres away, he said.
As they fled from the flames, they probably found themselves trapped between the fire and the edge of a 30-metre cliff, rescuers believe.
A young girl who tried to jump to safety died, a witness reported.
During the night, a photographer discovered the bodies of four people who were also probably trying to flee the flames, three under a car and one under a motorbike.
Early Tuesday, residents were returning to assess the damage. Some were still searching for missing loved ones.
One woman was looking for her daughter, another for her husband and son – an indication that the death toll may yet worsen.
The main street has turned into a scene of desolation. The pine trees around the houses are blackened, the sea is grey and there’s a stench of smoke everywhere.
Water planes fly over occasionally, scorched cars line the street, and there are several dead dogs.
Nikos Stavrinidis was at his summer home in Mati with his wife. Before they knew it, the fire surrounded him.“It happened very fast. The fire was in the distance, then sparks from the fire reached us. Then the fire was all around us,” Stavrinidis said. “We ran to the sea. We had to swim out because of the smoke, but we couldn’t see where anything was,” he said.
There were six people in his group: Stavrinidis, his wife and some of her friends. They swam further out to escape the smoke, but as they did so, they began to be carried away by the wind and the current.
“We didn’t all make it,” Stavrinidis said. One of the women in his group and one woman’s son drowned, before the rest were picked up by a fishing boat after two hours adrift.
“What upsets me and what I will carry in my heart is that it is terrible to see the person next to you drowning and not be able to help him. You can’t. That’s the only tragic thing,” he said, his voice breaking. “That will stay with me.”
Stella Petridi, a 65-year-old pensioner, had five dogs. She was in church when she noticed the approaching fire, and rushed home where they were locked in. But she never managed to open the door of her home which was already in flames.
She ran to the beach where rescuers picked her up, along with others, in the small hours, and brought her to Rafina, a town a little further down the coast.
“Mati is gone”, said Rafina’s mayor, Evangelos Bournous.
Dozens of people left without a home found refuge in a gymnasium whose manager Raffi Zeronnian returned from holiday early to let them in.
Firefighters report that the fire progressed at “lightning” speed, taking residents by surprise.
“I saw the fire move down the hill at around 6pm and five or 10 minutes later it was in my garden,” said 60-year old Athanasia Oktapodi whose house, like many here, is surrounded by highly flammable pine trees.
“They caught fire. I ran out like a crazy person, got to the beach and put my head in the water. Then the patrol boats came,” she said.
Most survivors stayed in the water for hours, watching their town burn.
Lela Demertzi, 53, was also rescued after making it to the beach, carrying her mother on her back. “My husband stayed behind, he did everything to save our holiday home, and he managed,” she said.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told residents, however, that they should leave their belongings behind to save themselves.
Combustible pine trees facilitated the fire’s progress as did the many gas bottles in holiday homes that exploded in the blazing heat of the flames.
Alina Marzin, a tourist from Wuppertal in Germany, waited in a hotel restaurant on the waterfront with her family until 1.30am to be rescued, constantly fearing that the fire would shatter the windows.
They had originally planned to go from Rafina to the island of Naxos, but cancelled everything.
“What an awful holiday!” Alina said.
Additional reporting by Associated Press