Cars turned to molten metal as Greek wildfires wipe villages off the map
MATI, Greece — Dried pools of molten aluminum dot the charred roads of a small Greek village ravaged by fire this week. The flames were so hot that cars in their path began to melt, metal dripping to the ground and tires turned to liquid rubber.
Some residents of Mati, near Athens, who tried to escape on foot or in their cars were trapped by the advancing fire, dying as they fled. Survivors spoke of seeing dead bodies on the sides of the road, later transferred carefully into bright yellow body bags and carried away.
The latest victim was an 84-year-old man who succumbed to his burns in a hospital on Wednesday, according to the Greek Health Ministry.
Twenty-six people died in a field just yards from the sea, where many fled to find refuge from the blaze. Their charred remains were found by rescue workers on Tuesday.
“It seems that some of them, the deceased, knew each other, because they were found in groups of three and four,” Red Cross rescue worker Vassilis Andriopoulos said Tuesday. “They could be friends or relatives or families who tried to protect themselves by hugging each other.”
Christiana Fragkou, who owns the land where those 26 bodies were found, told CNN on Wednesday that she had left the doors leading to her plot of land open to provide an escape route. A number of people fled that way, she said, but some could not flee fast enough.
“They came down, but just the last ones, as the fire was approaching and was very, very strong. They couldn’t make it because they couldn’t find their way out to the water,” she said.
Fragkou said that she and her family fled to the rocky coast where they were eventually rescued by fishermen and taken to the nearby port of Rafina.
Her home and her mother’s next door have been severely damaged. “The wind brought an incredible, an immense fire, which ruined everything,” she said.
Twin girls ‘missing’
The death toll, currently standing at 80, is expected to rise as firefighters and members of the armed forces continue searching cars and apartment blocks in the area for those who chose not to leave, or left it too late.
The Greek fire service said Wednesday it had received dozens of calls from relatives and friends of the missing. Pictures of some of them, including a young boy, have been posted on a missing persons website in the hope they can be located.
Two of the missing are 9-year-old twins Sofia and Vasiliki Philippopoulos, according to their father Yiannis. Speaking to Greek television Tuesday, he said he and their mother had searched for their daughters in hospitals, police stations and even a morgue before seeing TV footage of the girls disembarking a boat with a number of other survivors.
But Philippopoulos has still heard no news of Sofia and Vasiliki, or their grandparents, who were with the girls earlier in the day, he said.
The Greek Coast Guard confirmed to CNN’s Greek affiliate Tuesday that they had no record of the twins’ whereabouts or condition.
Almost 190 people were injured in the fires around the Attica region — the worst to hit Greece in decades — including 23 children, according to the Civil Protection Agency. Dozens are still in hospital, with around 10 in critical condition.
Mati ‘has disappeared’
More than 15 fires broke out on three separate fronts in that part of southern Greece on Monday afternoon, according to government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos, who described the firefighting challenge as “unprecedented.”
Hundreds of firefighters were deployed Monday to battle the blazes in eastern Attica (the Mati area) and Kineta, western Attica, where two fires were still active Wednesday morning.
Gusts of wind up to 120 kilometers per hour (75mph) — the fastest recorded in Attica in the past eight summers — fanned the flames, which were further fueled by temperatures topping 37˚C (99˚F) and low humidity, creating the “ideal conditions” for a fire to spread rapidly, according to the National Observatory of Athens (NCAA).
Twelve port vessels were mobilized along with a navy frigate, two gunships and three helicopters, Tzanakopoulos said, adding that 30 private vessels were also used in the rescue mission. Army and air force personnel and equipment were drafted in to help, he said.
Tourists and locals stranded on the beach at Mati were taken by boat to the nearby port town of Rafina where buses transported them to hotels, Tzanakopoulos said.
Following an appeal for help, several European Union countries, including Cyprus, Italy, Spain and Bulgaria, offered assistance in the form of firefighting planes, trucks and paramedics.
Christos Stylianides, European commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis management, is currently in Athens to assist the Greek authorities.
Speaking to Amna News Tuesday, the mayor of Rafina-Pikermi, Evangelos Bournos, said that his own home was destroyed by the fire and his family forced to flee to the sea, according to CNN’s Greek affiliate.
“I saw dead people. I saw at least 300 cars burned. I saw the burned houses,” he said, recalling the scene in Mati. “There is no such settlement anymore.”
“We are trying to function in another reality because two settlements, Mati and Kokkino Limanaki (just south of Mati), have disappeared. They have been lost on the map,” Bournos said.
Up to 50 houses were also destroyed in Neos Voutzas, just west of Mati, Bournos said: “It has changed the landscape. We live another reality.”
He praised the response of civilians, who were arriving in droves at the emergency headquarters Tuesday, bringing food, water, clothing and other essentials, and called on the government to act quickly to help survivors rebuild their lives before winter: “They have nothing.”
Doris Kountouriotis is one of those survivors. “As you can see, houses, cars, everything destroyed from the fire,” he told CNN, gesturing toward the charred fields. “I have lost everything.”
Supreme Court orders investigation into fires
Some locals have criticized the initial response from the Greek authorities.
Fragkou — who owns the land where 26 people perished — suggested that the response of the emergency services should have been better given how close the outbreaks were to the capital city.
“We lack organization and we don’t invest in prevention and that’s the whole deal,” she said.
Dimitra Stathopolou, another Mati resident, told CNN that the town was unprepared for the crisis and that she fled to the ocean because the roads were blocked with cars.
“There was no way to escape with a car, so the only way was going down to the sea,” she said. Stathopolou spent two and a half hours in the water with around 50 other people before being rescued, she said, adding: “The fire was everywhere.”
Yannis Stratikopoulos of the civil protection agency rejected suggestions Tuesday that the emergency response had been badly coordinated.
Speaking Tuesday, Greek Prime Minster Alexis Tsipras declared three days of mourning and urged people to focus on fighting the fires and helping the victims.
“Now it is a time for mobilization and fighting,” he said. “The fight to save what can be saved, the fight to defeat the fire, the fight to find the missing so that we don’t mourn any more lives and we may soothe the pain of those affected.”
Supreme Court Prosecutor Xeni Dimitriou has ordered an investigation into the causes of the fire.
Government spokesman Tzanakopoulos suggested Tuesday that the Attica blazes could have been started deliberately and said that Greece had requested drones from the US to detect any “suspicious activity.”
Also on Tuesday, the Greek government approved 20 million euros (about $23 million) to address the immediate needs of people and towns affected by the wildfires, Tzanakopoulos said.
Greek soccer team Olympiacos and its owner Evangelos Marinakis are donating a million euros (about $1.2 million) to help relieve the suffering of people affected by the wildfires, the club announced Tuesday. They are also opening bank accounts so fans can make donations.
Heatwaves and floods
Much of Europe, including Greece, has been baking under a massive high-pressure ridge that is allowing tropical heat to climb all the way to the Arctic.
Temperatures above 32˚C (90˚F) have extended to the northern reaches of Scandinavia, setting records in Sweden, Finland and Norway for stations above the Arctic Circle.
The result has been a string of unprecedented wildfires in Sweden that last week prompted the country to request assistance from other EU countries. The European Commission is also currently assisting Latvia in Eastern Europe, where wildfires are blazing following weeks of high temperatures.
And Greece could soon be battling a crisis on another front. Bulgaria has warned its southern neighbors, Greece and Turkey, that they could face floods as heavy rains swell the Arda and Maritsa rivers that flow into those territories, Reuters reported Wednesday.