Greece wildfires a 'Biblical disaster': At least 74 killed near Athens as tourists forced to flee into sea

Dozens of people flee to the beach in Matiq - BLITZ PICTURES +447831507156
Dozens of people flee to the beach in Matiq - BLITZ PICTURES +447831507156

Raging wildfires have killed at least 74 people and injured scores more as flames swept through a small resort town near Athens.

Emergency crews found one group of 26 victims, including families with children clasped in a last embrace as they tried to flee the flames. They were huddled together in a field just 30 metres from the sea near Mati in the region of Rafina, eastern Greece.

Nikos Economopoulos, head of Greece's Red Cross, told Skai TV: "They had tried to find an escape route but unfortunately these people and their kids didn't make it in time. Instinctively, seeing the end nearing, they embraced."

Interior Minister Panos Skourletis described the wildfires as a "Biblical disaster", according to The Times, and said rescue workers were "still searching to see if there are more missing", while mayor of Rafina Evangelos Bournous told the channel: "The number of dead is rising."

Ferocious fires came all the way into the towns, meaning the only safe direction for people to flee was towards the sea where hundreds of people had to be rescued in local fishing boats.

Greece wildfires gallery puff

Government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said early on Tuesday that Greece had requested US drones "to observe and detect any suspicious activity" after "15 fires had started simultaneously on three different fronts in Athens".

"I am really concerned by the parallel outbreak of these fires," Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said, with officials raising the possibility they could have been started deliberately by criminals out to ransack abandoned homes.

The fire was by far Greece's worst since flames devastated the southern Peloponnese peninsula in August 2007, killing dozens. It broke out in Mati late Monday afternoon and was still burning in some areas on Tuesday morning.

Greece wildfires | Travel advice

Cecily, 44, from Paris, on holiday with her 15-year-old daughter told The Telegraph: “We were staying in a holiday villa in Mati. We saw the fires outside the house and jumped in our hire car and drove towards the beach.

"There were about 500 people crammed onto the beach. There were no warnings and no help from authorities. The local Greek people came to rescue us in their fishing boats.

"We got in one then were picked up by a military boat which took us to Rafina. All the hotels were full so we slept in the hallway. We booked a flight back to Paris today. We have had no help from anywhere.”

Another French tourist Paulina Corvisier, 25, from Lyon, on holiday with her husband and mother-in-law, said: “We ran to the beach. We were all crowded onto the sand and rocks. Then the trees surrounding the beach burst into flames.

"I jumped in the water because I didn’t know what else to do. Ash was falling on me from the sky while I was in the water.”

Coastguard vessels were combing beaches to find any remaining survivors, with military hospitals on full alert, a government spokesman said.

Dozens of people flee to the beach in Mati - Credit: Blitz Pictures
Dozens of people flee to the beach in Matiq Credit: Blitz Pictures

Mati is in the eastern Rafina region, a popular spot for Greek holiday-makers, particularly pensioners and children at camps, 29 km (18 miles) east of the capital.

Haris Malimagolou from the Red Cross, talking of the harrowing discovery of the 26 victims found together, said: “Some members of our team found 26 bodies in a field next to the sea, we are assuming they were trapped by the fire because it was so strong and so fast. Some were huddled together as if trying to protect each other.

"They were badly burned and have not been identified yet. Their bodies have been transferred to Athens.”

He explained that the fire was so devastating because a separate fire at Corinth - some 68 miles from Mati - started earlier at 11am, so all the fire service resources were sent there.

This region is also very densely populated with a lot of summer houses, old people and children. Mr Malimagolou told The Telegraph the Red Cross have treated about 100 people for both minor and serious injuries

One of the youngest fatalities at this stage is thought to be a six-month-old baby who died of smoke inhalation, officials said. Of the 156 people injured, 11 were in intensive care, they added.

Greece wildfires gallery puff

The coastguard said four bodies were retrieved from the sea. In total, coastguard and other vessels rescued 696 people who had fled to beaches. Boats plucked another 19 people alive from the water.

Greece's fire brigade said the intensity and spread of the wildfire at Mati had slowed on Tuesday as winds died down, but it was still not fully under control.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on Tuesday afternoon declared a three-day period of national mourning, and said after cutting short a visit to Bosnia: "We are dealing with something completely asymmetric. It's a difficult night for Greece."

A woman walks in front of burnt cars at the village of Mati during a wildfire near Athens - Credit: AFP
A woman walks in front of burnt cars at the village of Mati during a wildfire near Athens Credit: AFP

Tourist resorts hit

Greek authorities were rushing to evacuate residents and tourists stranded on beaches in coastal areas early on Tuesday.

Dozens of people scrambled into the ocean as the blaze raged close to the shore, and they were picked up by passing boats.

Nine coastal patrol boats, two military vessels and "dozens of private boats" assisted by army helicopters were mobilised to help those stuck in Rafina harbour. 

Flames rise as a wildfire burns in the town of Rafina, near Athens - Credit: AFP
Flames rise as a wildfire burns in the town of Rafina, near Athens Credit: AFP

There were several reports of missing persons, including four tourists from Denmark who were said to have fled on a boat that was missing on Tuesday morning.

Evangelos Bournous, mayor of the port town of Rafina, said: "We were unlucky. The wind changed and it came at us with such force that it razed the coastal area in minutes."

The dock area became a makeshift hospital as paramedics checked survivors when they came off coast guard vessels and private boats. The operation continued through the night.

Wildfire in Mati, Greece

At daybreak on Tuesday, Ambulance Service deputy director Miltiadis Mylonas said the number of casualties was likely to rise as the more gutted homes and cars were checked.

"It took people by surprise and the events happened very fast. Also, the fires broke out on many fronts, so all these factors made the situation extremely difficult," he said.

"The task we face now is organizing the identification of victims by members of their families."

State of emergency

Greece issued an urgent appeal for help to tackle the fires, saying it needed air and land assets from its European Union partners. Cyprus offered to send fire engines and personnel.

The first major fire broke out in a pine forest near the seaside settlement of Kineta, 30 miles west of Athens between the capital and Corinth.

At least 220 firefighters were on the scene there while five water-dropping planes and seven helicopters helped to fight the blaze from the air. Reinforcements were sent in from across Greece.

Senior fire chief Achilleas Tzouvaras went on state TV to appeal to people to leave the area after some tried to stay on their properties.

"People should leave, close up their homes and just leave. People cannot tolerate so much smoke for so many hours," he said. "This is an extreme situation."

A man holds his son as a wildfire burns in the town of Rafina, near Athens - Credit: AFP
A man holds his son as a wildfire burns in the town of Rafina, near Athens Credit: AFP

The second major blaze broke out Monday afternoon in the Penteli and Rafina areas northeast of Athens. Children's summer camps and a seaside resort for military officers were evacuated, as well as residences in the area. Dozens of homes and cars were reportedly destroyed.

Victims flee coast

There was no official figure on how many people were evacuated overall.

The fire burned into the town of Rafina, turning the sky above the nearby port that serves ferries to the Cycladic islands black from the smoke. 

Witnesses reported seeing a hillside of homes gutted by flames east of Athens. A mayor said he saw at least 100 homes and 200 vehicles burning.

An official from the Red Cross said on Tuesday morning that 26 bodies had been discovered in the courtyard of a villa at the seaside resort of Mati. 

The bodies were entwined and severely burnt, a photographer at the scene said. They appeared to have been caught by the flames trying to reach the sea.

A house burns in the town of Mati, east of Athens - Credit: AP
A house burns in the town of Mati, east of Athens Credit: AP

Greek authorities urged residents to abandon their homes as a wildfire burned ferociously, closing one of Greece's busiest motorways, halting train links and sending plumes of smoke over the capital.

Wildfires are not uncommon in Greece, but a relatively dry winter created tinder box conditions. It was not clear what ignited the fires.

A firefighter tries to extinguish hotspots during a wildfire in Kineta, near Athens - Credit: AFP
A firefighter tries to extinguish hotspots during a wildfire in Kineta, near Athens Credit: AFP

The main Athens-Corinth motorway, one of two road routes to the Peloponese peninsula, was shut and train services were cancelled.

Fire raged around the Saronicos Gulf, ravaging tracts of pine forest, and was visible for miles. An ominous cloud of black-orange smoke hung over the Acropolis hill and the Parthenon temple in Athens on Monday afternoon. 

Cars are blocked at the closed National Road during a wildfire in Kineta - Credit: AFP
Cars are blocked at the closed National Road during a wildfire in Kineta Credit: AFP

Several other fires broke out across the country, including in northeastern Greece and the southern island of Crete, stretching Greece's firefighting capabilities. Gale force winds that frequently changed direction and continued into the night were hampering firefighting efforts.

Disaster could top Europe's most deadly wildfires

The wildfires raging near Athens are among the deadliest in Europe, with Portugal and Russia also suffering heavy losses.

Here is a recap of the worst.

Portugal in 2017 (64)

Sixty-four people were killed and 250 injured in the deadliest wildfires in Portugal's history in June 2017.

The fires burned for five days in the central Leiria region, breaking out at the height of a summer heatwave. Many of the victims died trapped in their cars by the flames while trying to escape.

Violent winds fanned the fires, ravaging some 460 square kilometres (around 180 square miles) of hillsides covered with pine and eucalyptus.

Fire over Vieira de Leiria, Portugal, in 2017 - Credit: NPA
Fire over Vieira de Leiria, Portugal, in 2017 Credit: NPA

In 2003 gigantic fires caused by a heatwave left 20 dead between July and September in central and southern Portugal.

The summer of 2003 remains the most disastrous in terms of surface destroyed, with nearly 4,250 square kilometres going up in smoke.

In 1966 a blaze in the forest of Sintra, west of Lisbon, killed 25 soldiers trying to battle the flames.

Russia in 2015 (34)

In April 2015 huge fires that started in the Khakassia region of southeastern Siberia killed 34 people as well as hundreds of cattle and thousands of sheep.

The blaze, which spread as far as Mongolia and practically up to the Chinese border, also destroyed 2,000 homes and 10,000 square kilometres of land.

Five years earlier, vast swathes of western Russia were ravaged by fires for weeks during an unprecedented heatwave and drought.

Russian wildfires in 2010 - Credit: Artyom Kototayev/AFP
Russian wildfires in 2010 Credit: Artyom Kototayev/AFP

The blazes between July and August 2010 tore through 10,000 square kilometres of forest, bogs and brushwood, burning entire villages.

Some of the fires came dangerously close to Russia's top nuclear research centre in Sarov.

Greece in 2007 (77)

Forest fires killed 77 people at the end of August 2007 in Greece, ravaging 2,500 square kilometres in the southern Peloponnese and the island of Evia, northeast of Athens.

A Greek firefighter battles the fire at the village of Styra on the island of Evia, Greece, in August 2007 - Credit: Margarita Kiaou/EPA
A Greek firefighter battles the fire at the village of Styra on the island of Evia, Greece, in August 2007 Credit: Margarita Kiaou/EPA

The fires raged for around 12 days, but most of the victims were killed early on in the disaster when they became trapped in villages cut off by the flames, some ignoring orders to evacuate.

France in 1949 (82)

In the heaviest loss of life in wildfires in France, 82 people were killed battling flames in the southwest Landes region in August 1949.

The victims - firemen, volunteers and soldiers - were caught in a ball of fire after the winds suddenly changed direction.

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