Deadly Wildfires Sweep Through Towns Near Athens, Greece

Jul 23, 2018
Originally published on July 24, 2018 6:41 am

Updated at 6:37 a.m. ET Tuesday

At least 50 people died and more than 150 were injured as huge fires fueled by powerful winds burned homes and forests in towns near the Greek capital, Athens, government officials said.

After authorities confirmed at least 24 dead on Monday, Greek Red Cross workers made a gruesome discovery close to a beach not far from the badly-burned village of Mati.

"We've found 26 more bodies," said Nikos Economopoulos, the Greek Red Cross director. "What a terrible day."

Rescue workers said the victims appeared to be families. The charred bodies were found huddled together. Some appeared to be hugging.

Greece has declared a state of emergency. Several European Union countries, as well as Israel, have offered to send help.

Greek firefighters battled the flames throughout the night near the seaside town of Kineta, about 35 miles west of Athens, and around the towns of Pendeli and Kalamos in the north.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras cut short his visit to neighboring Bosnia and quickly returned to Athens. He told reporters that his government will do "whatever is humanly possible to control" the fires.

He also pled with Greeks in affected areas to leave immediately. TV footage showed several trying to fight the fires with garden hoses or buckets filled with water.

"What's most important now is your life," he said. "Properties and material wealth can be replaced. Human lives cannot."

Citizens' Protection Minister Nikos Toskas suggested arsonists caused the fires. The Greek Supreme Court has ordered an investigation.

Wildfires are not unusual during Greece's hot, dry summers. Dozens of people died during an especially fiery summer in 2007.

But Monday's blazes near Athens spread so quickly, they seemed to catch everyone off guard.

Giorgos Mathiopoulos, the head of Greece's emergency workers association, told reporters that one fire broke out around noon and the second around 5 p.m.

By early evening, a huge plume of smoke was visible on Acropolis hill. The sky glowed orange.

Powerful, hot winds spread the flames, forcing hundreds from their homes. Achilleas Tzouvaras, a senior fire chief, told residents lingering near their fire-threatened homes to "just leave."

"People cannot tolerate so much smoke for so many hours," he said on state TV. "This is an extreme situation."

Greek TV stations broke into live coverage, showing panoramas of burning homes and pine trees and close-ups of distraught homeowners in masks.

Motorists on the Athens-Corinth highway to the Peloponnese in southern Greece had to pull over because they couldn't see due to the thick smoke. Authorities closed the highway.

The seaside resort village of Mati, about 15 miles east of Athens, was nearly consumed by the flames. One resident told reporters she escaped the fire by jumping into the sea. Another compared it to Pompeii.

In Penteli and Rafina, northeast of Athens, children were evacuated from summer camps. SKAI TV news reported that residents and vacationers fled to nearby beaches in Rafina, where they were rescued by the coast guard. Ten panicked tourists, reportedly from Denmark, also fled a beach by boat. Five have been located and rescued.

At least three villages have been evacuated. Evangelos Bournous, the mayor of the seaside town of Rafina, told reporters that he had personally seen many homes go up in flames.

Firefighters also battled other fires around the country: on Crete, in the northern town of Soufli and near Corinth. On Sunday, there was also a fire on Skopelos, the island where the 2008 hit film Mamma Mia was shot.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

At least 50 people have died. More than a thousand are injured after forest fires raged through towns near the Greek capital, Athens. Hundreds of firefighters have been fighting back these blazes, which broke out Monday and have been fueled by powerful, hot winds. Now Greece is asking the European Union for help. Joanna Kakissis has more.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Powerful winds swept smoke from the fires into a huge glowing cloud visible from the Acropolis hill in Athens. The sky looked orange. Live coverage from TV news showed flames burning through homes and pine forests and desperate homeowners trying to fight the flames with garden hoses and buckets filled with water. Late Monday night, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras pleaded with residents to evacuate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER ALEXIS TSIPRAS: (Through interpreter) What's most important now is your life. We've got to remain calm and focus on saving human lives. Properties and material wealth can be replaced. Human lives cannot.

KAKISSIS: One government official suggested that arson was behind the fires. One fire raged near the seaside town of Kineta about 35 miles west of Athens. Another fire east of Athens consumed at least one village. The fires trapped children in summer camps and vacationers on beaches. Forest fires are not uncommon in Greece. Summers are hot and dry here, but they are rarely this deadly. The current fires are the worst since 2007, when dozens died in southern Greece.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DIMITRIS TZANAKOPOULOS: (Speaking Greek).

KAKISSIS: The government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos told reporters that most of those who died in the current fires had been trapped in their vehicles while fleeing. The youngest victim, according to authorities, is a baby who died of smoke inhalation. Giorgos Mathiopoulos, who's in charge of Greece's emergency services, told a TV reporter that the death count is expected to rise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GIORGOS MATHIOPOULOS: (Through interpreter) We haven't stopped looking for bodies or for the injured all night. Today, it will become clear how many more have died.

KAKISSIS: At least 26 charred bodies were found early Tuesday near a beach east of Athens. The Greek Red Cross said some of those victims died holding each other. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE LAST SIGHS OF THE WIND'S "PHOBIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.