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Wildfire kills at least 60 near Athens, families embrace as flames close in

July 24, 2018 at 1:14pm
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Wildfires sweeping through a Greek resort town killed at least 60 people, officials said, including families with children found clasped in a last embrace as they tried to flee the flames.

The inferno was by far Greece’s worst since fires 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.

Emergency crews found one group of 26 victims, some of them youngsters, lying close together near the top of a cliff overlooking a beach.

“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,” Nikos Economopoulos, the head of Greece’s Red Cross, told Skai TV.

Coastguard vessels and other boats rescued almost 700 people who had managed to get to the shoreline and plucked another 19 survivors and four dead bodies from the sea, the coastguard said.

A Reuters photographer saw at least four dead people on a narrow road clogged with cars heading to a beach.

“Residents and visitors in the area did not escape in time even though they were a few metres from the sea or in their homes,” fire brigade spokeswoman Stavroula Maliri said.

In total, at least 60 people died, Evangelos Bournous, the mayor of nearby Rafina-Pikermi, said.

It was unclear how many people remained unaccounted for as coastguard vessels combed beaches to find any remaining survivors, with military hospitals on full alert, a government spokesman said.

One of the youngest victims was 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.

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

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. The service urged residents to report missing relatives and friends.

White smoke rose from smouldering fires in parts of Mati early on Tuesday. Burned-out cars were scattered outside gated compounds where three- and four-storey buildings bore signs of fire damage.

“It is a difficult night for Greece,” said Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, looking pale after returning from a visit to Bosnia.

Greece issued an urgent appeal for help to tackle fires that raged out of control in several places across the country, destroying homes and disrupting major transport links.

Cyprus and Spain offered assistance after Greece said it needed air and land assets from European Union partners.

“Our thoughts go to Greece and the victims of the terrible fires. France and Europe express their solidarity with both Sweden and Greece and offer help,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in tweets published in French and Greek. Sweden has also suffered forest fires.

Newspaper printed banner headlines including “Killer Fire” and “Hell” and reported fears the death toll would climb.

Authorities said they would use an unmanned drone from the United States to monitor and track any suspicious activity.

Tsipras and Greek officials have expressed misgivings at the fact that several major fires broke out at the same time.

Wildfires are not uncommon in Greece, and a relatively dry winter helped create the current tinder-box conditions. It was not immediately clear what ignited the fires.

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

Earlier on Monday, Greek authorities urged residents of a coastal region west of Athens to abandon their homes as another wildfire burned ferociously, closing one of Greece’s busiest motorways, halting train links and sending plumes of smoke over the capital.