Greek wildfires toll rises to 81 amid search for survivors

Update: July, 26/2018 - 11:43

ATHENS — At least 81 people died in huge wildfires around Athens, Greek authorities said on Wednesday, as rescuers scoured scorched homes and burned-out cars for survivors of one of the world’s deadliest fire outbreaks.

Scores of locals and holidaymakers fled to the sea to try to escape the flames as they tore through towns and villages near the capital stoked by 100-kilometre-per-hour wind gusts, devouring woodland and hundreds of buildings.

Greek media have described the disaster as a "national tragedy", while Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras cut short a visit to Bosnia and announced three days of national mourning.

A young Irishman on honeymoon was among those who died, the British embassy in Greece confirmed.

According to British media, Brian O’Callaghan-Westropp had been on honeymoon in the coastal village of Mati when his car was caught in the wildfires.

Although his new wife Zoe managed to escape to a nearby beach, she was taken to hospital with burns, the reports said.

Fire service spokeswoman Stavroula Maliri said 81 people were now known to have died. The toll surpasses the 77 people killed in the previous deadliest fires in Greece, on the southern island of Evia in 2007.

Apart from the Irishman, the victims included three other tourists – a Polish mother and her son, as well as a Belgian national whose teenage daughter survived the blaze.

Maliri said firefighters continued to search for bodies after receiving numerous calls reporting people missing.

It is possible that some of those unaccounted for "will be among the victims", Maliri said.

She added that relatives of those missing had been asked to provide DNA samples to help authorities identify bodies.

’Wall of flame’

When the fires broke out on Monday evening, terrified residents and tourists were overtaken by the flames in homes, on foot or in their cars.

"My husband said we had to leave with our seven-year-old grandson," said Kiriaki Alexiadou, a resident of the devastated village of Mati.

"We ran to the car as the pine cones were burning on the trees."

Choking back the tears on Wednesday, she pointed to the charred skeleton of a house next to hers.

"The policewoman who lived there, her husband and their two children left on foot towards the sea but they were trapped by this wall of flame."

The burned bodies of 26 people, including small children, were discovered at a villa in Mati, 40km northeast of Athens, rescuers said.

Rescue teams on Wednesday were going house to house to search for survivors in the village.

Volunteers were also doing the rounds to provide food to those whose houses survived relatively unscathed but which have experienced sporadic power cuts since the fire struck.

"In 40 years here we’ve seen several fires each year" in the hills where Monday’s blaze broke out said resident Andreas Matsios. "But we never imagined they would ever reach Mati."

Rain is forecast for the coming days, which will help efforts to douse the flames after temperatures topped 40 degrees Celsius on Monday.

But another blaze was threatening houses near the seaside town of Kineta, 25km west of Athens.

Dozens of firefighters were battling the flames around Kineta aided by helicopters and planes dropping thousands of gallons of water.

Some 187 people were hospitalised after Monday’s fires, with 71 still being treated on Wednesday, including almost a dozen children, most of whom were in a "serious condition", the fire services said. — AFP