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Greek wildfire kills at least 80, many are still missing

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Firefighters try to extinguish flames during a wildfire at the village of Kineta, near Athens on July 24. Raging wildfires killed 80 people including small children in Greece, devouring homes and forests as terrified residents fled to the sea to escape the flames, authorities said Tuesday. (AFP)

ATHENS, July 25, (Agencies): The death toll from a fire which ripped through a Greek coastal town stood at 80 on Wednesday as frantic relatives tried to track down people missing from the inferno and coroners began the grim task of identifying bodies. Hundreds of people were trapped in the eastern resort of Mati on Monday night as flames whipped around them.

Many jumped into the sea to survive but others died from suffocation, either in their cars or trapped on the edge of steep cliffs. The Greek anti-terrorist service was investigating suggestions that the blaze — one of several throughout the Attica region — was started deliberately, a s e c u r i t y source said. Arson is often thought to be behind some fires in a crude attempt to clear forest land for building. The fire brigade said the death of a survivor in hospital had brought the toll up to 80.

The service had also received dozens of calls reporting missing persons, but it was unclear if some of them were among those found dead, a spokesperson said. Some appeared on television to plead for help. “I’m looking for my mum,” a young woman told Greece’s SKAI TV between sobs. Her mother was Athina Karakoulaki, 48, whom she last spoke to on Monday afternoon as the flames closed in. The fire broke out at 16.57 (1357 GMT), an hour which is observed as a siesta time in rural Greek communities. Mati was popular with local tourists, including pensioners.

Rescue teams combed through the area and the sea on Wednesday trying to locate anything which could offer clarity on the missing, who are thought to number about 40. “We took our cars and went down to the sea and got into the sea to escape, but there were people who did not make it,” said Mati resident Agni Gantona. “We got into the water and stayed there for about five hours until the boats came to pick us up. We were at the beach with about 250, 300 people. “Some were burned, some were near fainting from the smoke and the flames. Groups of us, we were holding each other by the hand and shouting each other’s names, because we could not see from the smoke.” With most of the corpses badly charred, identification of the dead will be challenging, experts said.

“Work has started on identifying the victims of the wildfires but the majority of the bodies are totally charred,” Grigoris Leon, head of the Hellenic Society of Forensic Medicine, told Reuters. The post-mortems and identification procedures are taking place at a morgue at Shisto, west of Athens. Leon said this will involve team work by coroners, forensic dentistry experts from the Athens University’s Dental School, and the police forensic service. It was unclear what caused the fire, which spread rapidly through the community. But some suggested that the sheer force of winds, thick pine, fire and panic was a deadly combination making even the most well-executed evacuation plan futile.

“Armaggeddon,” wrote the daily newspaper Ethnos on its front page, a reference to the Biblical location prophesising the end of times. It carried a photo of a burned Greek flag hanging among the branches of a charred tree. In related news, scores of locals and holidaymakers fled to the sea to try to escape the flames as they tore through towns near Athens 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 fire service official said that searches to find those missing in the fires would continue on Wednesday, although there was still no official word on the number of people unaccounted for. “We’ve received numerous calls reporting people missing,” Maliri said.

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. AFP photographers saw the burnt bodies of people and dogs. The charred bodies of 26 people, including small children, were discovered at a villa at the seaside resort of Mati, 40 kms (25 miles) northeast of Athens, rescuers said. “Mati no longer exists,” said the mayor of nearby Rafina, Evangelos Bournous, adding that more than a thousand buildings and 300 cars had been damaged.

Rescue teams on Wednesday were going house to house to search for survivors in Mati. “That’s not always possible because some houses are at risk of collapse,” a civil defence worker told AFP. 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.” But another blaze was threatening houses near the seaside town of Kineta, 25 kilometres 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 have been hospitalised, with 82 being treated on Tuesday evening, including almost a dozen children, most of whom were in a “serious condition”, the fire services said. Shock was giving way to public anger Wednesday, with several media questioning how such a devastating blaze could have hit a country well used to wildfires.

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