Greece wildfires: scores dead as holiday resort devastated

Death toll rises to 74 as Red Cross official says 26 people died as they huddled together on beach in Mati

Greece wildfires: scores dead as holiday resort devastated

The worst wildfire to hit Greece in over a decade tore through a small resort town near Athens on Monday afternoon, killing at least 74 people, injuring almost 200 and forcing hundreds more to rush on to beaches and into the sea as the blaze devoured houses and cars.

Huge, fast-moving flames trapped families with children as they tried to flee from Mati, 18 miles (29km) east of the Greek capital. Among the dead were 26 people whose bodies were found huddled tightly together close to the beach, a Red Cross official said on Tuesday morning.


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It was the countrys deadliest fire since blazes raged across the southern Peloponnese peninsula in August 2007, killing dozens of people.

The Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, said a state of emergency had been declared in the Attica region, which includes Athens, and ordered three days of national mourning.

Greece is going through an unspeakable tragedy, he said, adding: We mustnt let mourning overwhelm us, because these hours are hours of battle, unity, courage and above all solidarity.

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As Greece tried to come to terms with what one civil protection agency official described as a national tragedy, the country activated an EU agreement to request help from fellow member states.

A military transport plane with 60 firefighters on board flew out of Cyprus, Spain dispatched two water-dropping planes and other countries, including Turkey, Israel and Italy, offered to send planes and helicopters.

Europe will stand by our Greek friends in these difficult times, tweeted Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council. Help is on its way from several EU countries.


Details of the fates of some of those who had perished emerged as Tuesday wore on.

The 26 who died close to the beach had tried to find an escape route but didnt make it in time, Nikos Economopoulos, the head of Greeces Red Cross, told the countrys Skai TV. Instinctively, seeing the end nearing, they embraced.

A fire brigade spokesman said at least 74 people had died. The toll was expected to rise as rescue crews searched through the charred remains of houses.

The government said at least 172 people were hurt, including 16 children, and 11 adults were in a serious condition. The Greek coastguard said the bodies of four people were retrieved from the sea off Mati.

But there were also stories of remarkable rescues: coastguards and others saved 696 people who had fled to beaches, while boats pulled another 19 people alive from the sea.

The town they had left behind had been gutted. Many hours after the blaze broke out, the strong smell of charred buildings and trees lingered in the air. White smoke rose from smouldering fires.

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Aerial footage shows homes destroyed by Athens wildfires video

Mati doesnt even exist as a settlement any more, one woman told Skai TV. I saw corpses, burnt-out cars. I feel lucky to be alive.

Mati is in the Rafina region, which is popular with local tourists, particularly older people and children at holiday camps.

I personally saw at least 100 homes in flames, said Evangelos Bournous, the mayor of the Rafina-Pikermi area. I saw it with my eyes, it is a total catastrophe.

A woman carries bottles of water as people stand amid the charred remains of burnt-out cars in Mati, east of Athens. Photograph: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP

Nine coastal patrol boats, two military vessels and dozens of private boats were mobilised to help people stuck in Rafina harbour. Police said they found two Danish tourists in a boat off the Rafina coast. Another eight people from the group were missing.

Nikos Stavrinidis said he had lost two friends in the waters off Rafina port, after the group he was with sprinted into the sea when they saw the flames approaching.

It happened very fast, he told the Associated Press. The fire was in the distance, then sparks from the fire reached us. Then the fire was all around us. The wind was indescribable.

Yannis Stratikopoulos of the civil protection agency, said efforts to fight the blazes would continue until they were brought under control. Although he said it was too early to speculate on what had caused the fires, he rejected suggestions that the emergency response had been badly coordinated.

People evacuate from the village of Mati on Monday night. Photograph: Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, Greek authorities had urged residents of a coastal region west of Athens to abandon their homes as another wildfire burned ferociously, closing one of Greeces busiest motorways, halting train links and sending plumes of smoke over the capital.

Firefighters and equipment from across Greece were deployed to deal with the blaze at Kineta, a small resort town about 35 miles west of the capital on a route used daily by tens of thousands of drivers to reach the Peloponnese peninsula.

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Car drives through wildfires on motorway near Athens – video

Strong winds fanned towering walls of flames stretching as wide as four miles near Kineta, local officials said. Dozens of homes were thought to have been damaged or destroyed by the blaze.

Criticism of the rescue operation was mounting on Tuesday, as locals in and around Mati claimed officials had misjudged the ferocity of the fires and focused on the blazes around Kineta when another much greater inferno was raging in the eastern resort area.

Firefighters and soldiers try to extinguish a wildfire burning in the town of Rafina, near Athens. Photograph: Costas Baltas/Reuters

One resident, identified as Christina, told Thema 104.6 radio that the authorities had been badly organised. There was no plan. Not a drop of water was thrown on the flames here because they were only concentrated on western Attica. That is why people burned. No one was informed by anyone, said the woman.

Almost 50 brush and forest fires broke out across Greece on Monday and early Tuesday, with most of them quickly extinguished, the fire department said. Ten were still burning late on Tuesday morning, including blazes in Corinth, Crete and in central and northern Greece.

Areas around Athens were like a tinderbox, emergency workers said, after a dry winter and a summer heatwave in which temperatures have risen above 40C. However, heavy rain was forecast across southern Greece on Wednesday.

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