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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 August 2018

‘Everything we had is gone’: Grief racks Greek town ravaged by wildfires

Fast-moving wildfires outside Athens, the country’s deadliest in years, killed at least 74 people overnight

A rooster decoration in a burning house during the forest fire in Mati, a north-east suburb of Athens, Greece, July 23, 2018. EPA
A rooster decoration in a burning house during the forest fire in Mati, a north-east suburb of Athens, Greece, July 23, 2018. EPA

A few hundred metres down Mati’s main road, Posidonos, named after the Greek sea god, burnt out car wrecks line the street. A woman and her son walk past ashen electricity poles threatening to fall down on passersby.

Their house was completely destroyed by the wildfires – Greece's deadliest in decades – that have ravaged this small coastal town east of Athens and left at least 74 people, including small children, dead.

“Everything we had is gone,” Maria says as she embraces her neighbours, Stamos and Lela, whose house is still standing, somehow untouched by the blaze that spread through highly-flammable pine trees and exploded gas bottles.

As rescuers rushed to help those trapped by the fires in the tourist-friendly Attica region overnight, many remained stranded on beaches and several died at sea, swept away in the dead of night. A group of 26 died in the courtyard of a villa here, huddled in small groups as they tried to protect one another.

“You can’t imagine just how bad it is,” says Stamos, who is too distraught to make eye contact.

“We lost a friend and their two children. The father and son were burnt to death and the daughter died by the rocks over there,” he says pointing towards the sea. The mother survived but “who knows how long she will last”.

A son of Stamos and Lela arrives in Mati after dashing from Mykonos island to be with his mother, he falls into her arms crying. The village is grieving.

By now Posidonos road is filled with fire fighters, policemen and women, rescue crews, journalists and people who are inspecting the damage done. A giant truck from a company called Bread Factory has pulled up loaded with water bottles for the needy. Students from Athens walk around in yellow neon vests and assess the damage in ashened gardens.

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Read more:

Greek wildfires: 'Mati doesn't even exist as a settlement any more'

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Under the stench of smoke, Petros, 44, sits on a white stone wall in front of the village’s mini market. A Greek flag moves in the wind behind him. His shop looks like the perfect summer tourist shop. But this season will be remembered here for the worst of reasons.

His 24-year-old nephew Anasios, consoling him, has arrived from Athens. Mati has always been his favourite place and now he wants to be close to his uncle, who looks to the floor and struggles to find any words.

Anasios explains his uncle’s fears about friends who are yet to be found after the overnight fire. Like the rest of Mati’s residents, Petros is in mourning for those found dead this morning.

A woman reacts as she tries to find her dog, following a wildfire at the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece July 24, 2018. REUTERS/Costas Baltas TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A woman reacts as she tries to find her dog, following a wildfire at the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece July 24, 2018. Reuters

A survey of the destruction reveals how some of Mati’s inhabitants were luckier than others. A burnt down garden stands side-by-side with an undamaged house. Many here, both residents and tourists, faced a close-call with death.

Hari Nikodomos, whose home lies some 100 metres from the coast, describes how the fire was “chasing the cars” making a mad dash for the sea.

“We heard about a fire in western Attica yesterday but it wasn't until around 6pm that we started to smell the fire here,” he says of the blaze as it moved east.

“That is when the air got hotter, thicker,” he continues. “Finally it wasn't until when the cars started driving down the narrow streets towards the sea that we really understood.”

Aspa, a middle-aged woman who was stuck in traffic on her way back to Mati from work in Athens when the fire broke out, encapsulates the anger of many here, shouting that this is all the fault of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

“How is it possible that people die in a fire when it happens next to the sea?” she asks. “Why isn’t Greek ready for this?”

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