At least 79 people died in huge wildfires around Athens, Greek authorities said Wednesday, as rescuers scoured scorched homes and burned-out cars for survivors of one of the deadliest fire outbreaks in Europe’s modern history.
Scores of locals and holidaymakers fled to the sea to try to escape the flames as they tore through towns near Athens stoked by 100-kilometre-per-hour wind gusts, devouring woodland and hundreds of buildings.
Greek media have described the disaster as a “national tragedy”, while Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras cut short a visit to Bosnia and announced three days of national mourning.
A fire service official said that searches to find those missing in the fires would continue on Wednesday, although there was still no official word on the number of people unaccounted for.
Spokeswoman Stavroula Maliri said authorities knew of “79 dead”, surpassing the 77 people killed in the previous deadliest fires in Greece, on the southern island of Evia in 2007.
“We’ve received numerous calls reporting people missing,” Maliri said.
When the fires broke out on Monday evening, terrified residents and tourists were overtaken by the flames in homes, on foot or in their cars. AFP photographers saw the burnt bodies of people and dogs.
The charred bodies of 26 people, including small children, were discovered at a villa at the seaside resort of Mati, 40 kilometres (25 miles) northeast of Athens, rescuers said.
“Mati no longer exists,” said the mayor of nearby Rafina, Evangelos Bournous, adding that more than a thousand buildings and 300 cars had been damaged.
Rescue teams on Wednesday were going house to house to search for survivors in Mati.
“That’s not always possible because some houses are at risk of collapse,” a civil defence worker told AFP.
Volunteers were also doing the rounds to provide food to those whose houses survived relatively unscathed but which have experienced sporadic power cuts since the fire struck.
“In 40 years here we’ve seen several fires each year” in the hills where Monday’s blaze broke out said resident Andreas Matsios. “But we never imagined they would ever reach Mati.”
Rain is forecast for the coming days, which will help efforts to douse the flames after temperatures topped 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) on Monday.
But another blaze was threatening houses near the seaside town of Kineta, 25 kilometres west of Athens.
Dozens of firefighters were battling the flames around Kineta aided by helicopters and planes dropping thousands of gallons of water.
Some 187 people have been hospitalised, with 82 being treated on Tuesday evening, including almost a dozen children, most of whom were in a “serious condition”, the fire services said.
Shock was giving way to public anger Wednesday, with several media questioning how such a devastating blaze could have hit a country well used to wildfires.
The opposition Te Nea daily criticised the government’s “inability to protext its citizens just a few kilometres from Athens”.
The front page of the Ethnos newspaper showed a charred Greek flag with the headline: “Armageddon”.
‘People have lost everything’
Athanasia Oktapodi, whose home is surrounded by pine trees, said she first spotted the fire moving down the hill “and five or 10 minutes later it was in my garden”.
“I ran out like a crazy person, got to the beach and put my head in the water. Then the patrol boats came,” said the 60-year-old.
At least six people died trying to escape the flames into the sea. Some 715 people were evacuated by boats to Rafina, the government said.
“People are shocked, lost. Some of them have lost everything: children, parents, homes,” said Red Cross spokeswoman Georgia Trisbioti.
The European Union activated its Civil Protection Mechanism after Greece sought help. Several countries said they were sending aircraft to help fight the flames.
The EU’s humanitarian crisis manager, Christos Stylianides, arrived in Athens on Tuesday to assist relief efforts.
“Today is a day of great sorrow for the Greek people and for all of Europe,” he said on Twitter.
The wildfires come as record temperatures in northern Europe have seen blazes cause widespread damage in recent days.