50 Killed in Greek Wildfires
RAFINA, Greece (AP) — Wildfires raged through seaside resorts near the Greek capital, torching homes, cars and forests and killing at least 50 people, authorities said Tuesday. Twenty-six of the dead were believed to be groups of families or friends who were found huddled together, some of them hugging.
Rescue crews were searching the charred remains of homes and cars in the deadliest of the fires, the one in the Rafina area northeast of Athens, and there were fears the death toll could rise. More than 170 people were treated in hospitals for injuries including burns.
The country’s prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, declared three days of national mourning for those killed in the deadliest fire season to hit Greece in more than a decade.
With the flames whipped up by gale-force winds that frequently changed direction, many tourists and residents fled toward the coastline. Some swam out to sea, braving rough water and strong currents to escape the ferocious flames and choking smoke. A flotilla of boats, including some from the coast guard, evacuated more than 700 people by sea from threatened beaches overnight, authorities said.
“It happened very fast. The fire was in the distance, then sparks from the fire reached us. Then the fire was all around us,” said resident Nikos Stavrinidis, who had gone with his wife to fix up his summer home for a visit by his daughter.
Stavrinidis, his wife and four friends swam out into the sea to escape the smoke, but they quickly became disoriented, losing sight of the shore and being swept out further by the wind and currents.
Two of the group didn’t survive.
“It is terrible to see the person next to you drowning and not being able to help him,” Stavrinidis said, his voice breaking. The remaining survivors were picked up by a fishing boat with an Egyptian crew who jumped into the water to rescue them.
Others never made it to the beach.
The head of Greece’s Red Cross, Nikos Oikonomopoulos, told Skai television that a Red Cross rescue team found 26 bodies in a compound northeast of Athens, some of them clutching each other in groups of threes and fours.
“Everything happened in seconds,” said Andreaas Passios, who lives next to the compound. “I grabbed a beach towel. It saved my life. I soaked it, grabbed my wife and we ran to the sea.”
Passios said he and his wife stayed by the sea for two hours.
“It was unbelievable. Gas canisters were exploding. Burning pine cones were flying everywhere,” he said.
When the flames died down, Spyros Hadjiandreou came searching for loved ones.
“My niece and cousin were staying here on holiday. I don’t know if they made it out,” he said. “I don’t know if they are OK. I haven’t heard from them.”
The death toll stood at 50 by Tuesday morning, government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said.
By early afternoon, the Health Ministry’s emergency operations said 71 adults continued to be hospitalized, 10 of them in serious condition. Twenty-three children were also being treated for injuries in hospitals, none of them in serious condition.