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Greece wildfires: Survivors of deadly blazes dig through wreckage

25 July 2018, 12:01:00

Late on Monday night, Giorgos Stabelos was sitting in his living room at home in the Greek coastal town of Rafina, watching the news when the presenter uttered a sentence that made his heart jump.

Since the early afternoon, news had trickled in about wildfires spreading throughout areas surrounding the Greek capital, Athens, including Mati, Rafina and Kineta.

But the powerful blaze had suddenly passed Marathonos Street and was heading towards the beachfront in Mati, a resort village some 29km east of Athens, where his son owns a taverna.

He rushed out of his home and hopped on his motorcycle. At first, he could not find a clear path due to dense plumes of smoke.

Stabelos tried several streets until he found an opening, weaving his bike around abandoned cars and dodging small pockets of fire until he reached the intersection perched above the restaurant.

He walked down the hill, startled as he saw a charred, lifeless body on the pavement. As he approached the shore, he saw more bodies strewn on the ground.

At least 74 people died as the wildfires crisscrossed through the resort areas, according to officials. Some 187 others, including 23 children, were injured and upwards of 700 were rescued. 

"Next to that chair, there was a dead body," Stabelos says, pointing to a nearby seat. "Over there were more bodies."

Standing on the beach, he recalls: "There was a woman looking for her 91-year-old mother. I think she had drowned."

Although his son was unharmed and the taverna largely left intact, their neighbours were less fortunate. Next door are the charred remains of what was a large restaurant just a day earlier.

The streets of Mati are lined with burned out cars, charred motorcycles and scorched boats. Up and down the coiling residential roads are the remnants of homes, some of them still simmering and crackling.

Residents and volunteers sweep up piles of glass shards while city workers drive through and hand out water bottles. Firefighting planes fly low overhead, buzzing loudly.

Down the street from the taverna, police and rescue workers mull around an intersection. Behind them, at least 26 bodies, among them children, are identified and placed into body bags. Emergency crews found them lying close to each other near a steep cliff overlooking the sea.

"They had tried to find an escape route, but unfortunately these people and their kids didn't make it in time," Nikos Economopoulos, the head of Greece's Red Cross, told the local Skai TV.

"Instinctively, seeing the end nearing, they embraced."

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said the country is "going through an unspeakable tragedy", declaring three days of mourning. 

The fires in Mati are the worst since 2007 when flames devastated the southern Peloponnese Peninsula, killing dozens.


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