The death toll from the wildfire ravaging the seaside areas around Athens has increased to 60 in Greece’s deadliest blaze in more than a decade, according to local officials.
“We have counted 60 dead,” Myron Tsagarakis, a local official in Rafina, the largest town in the area most affected by the fires, told AFP, confirming earlier reports by local media.
Many tourists and residents fled toward the coastline to escape the ferocious flames and choking smoke. Authorities evacuated more than 700 people by sea overnight, said Merchant Marine deputy minister Nektarios Santorinios, whose ministry is in charge of the coast guard.
But some didn’t make it to the beach. The head of Greece’s Red Cross, Nikos Oikonomopoulos, told Skai television that a Red Cross rescue team reported finding the 26 bodies in a compound northeast of Athens.
“Everything happened in seconds,” said Andreaas Passios, who lives next to the compound. “I grabbed a beach towel. It saved my life. I soaked it, grabbed my wife and we ran to the sea.”
Passios said he and his wife stayed by the sea for two hours: “It was unbelievable. Gas canisters were exploding. Burning pine cones were flying everywhere.”
When the flames died down, Spyros Hadjiandreou came searching for loved ones.
“My niece and cousin were staying here on holiday. I don’t know if they made it out,” he said. “I don’t know if they are OK. I haven’t heard from them.”
The two largest wildfires — one 30 kilometers (20 miles) northeast of Athens near Rafina, the other 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of the capital in Kineta — broke out Monday during hot, dry summer conditions. Fanned by gale-force winds that frequently changed direction, the flames spread rapidly into populated seaside towns — too fast for many who were in their cars or homes to flee, fire department spokeswoman Stavroula Malliri said.
“The police tried to direct us away from the fire, but we couldn’t escape it,” said Aleka Papariga, a former Greek Communist Party leader who lives near Rafina. “We got stuck in traffic and the flames were on top of us. We managed to find a small gap and we made it out.”
Evangelos Bournous, the Rafina mayor, blamed the winds.
“We were unlucky,” he said. “The wind changed and it came at us with such force that it razed the coastal area in minutes.”
Government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said 715 people were evacuated from beaches and coastline by navy vessels, yachts and fishing boats. The coast guard said 19 people were rescued at sea, some of whom had swum out to escape the flames.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras declared three days of national mourning after the death toll reached 60.
“Today Greece is mourning, and in memory of those who were lost, we are declaring a three-day period of mourning,” Tsipras said in a statment. “But we mustn’t let mourning overwhelm us, because these hours are hours of battle, unity, courage and above all solidarity.”
In all, 47 brush and forest fires broke out across Greece Monday and early Tuesday, with most of them quickly extinguished, the fire department said. Ten were still burning late Tuesday morning, including blazes in Corinth, Crete, and in central and northern Greece.
More than 400 firefighters and volunteer firefighters were battling the two fires near Athens, supported by seven water-dropping helicopters and three aircraft.
Greece sought international help through the European Union. Spain was sending two firefighting aircraft while Cyprus was sending in 60 firefighters. Israel and Turkey both also offered assistance.
“Following the terrible fires in Greece, Israeli authorities have approached their peers in Greece in order to offer any assistance needed,” the Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “At this stage, the Greek authorities are saying they have gained control of the fires. In any case, we have put crews on alert. Israel is at the disposal of Greece if it becomes necessary. Greek authorities thanked Israel for the offer.”
The ministry said the aid proposal was made by the National Security Council of the Prime Minister’s Office and Israel’s ambassador in Athens.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan tweeted a message of empathy with the Greek authorities and people as they battle the flames.
“Israel will be ready, of course, to help Greece with land and air [fire] extinguishing whenever it is requested,” he wrote.
My heart goes out to the people and government of #Greece, who are facing devastating wildfires. Israel stands ready to assist our friend and ally Greece in fighting the flames with ground or aerial support, as soon as we are asked.
— Ambassador Gilad Erdan גלעד ארדן (@giladerdan1) July 24, 2018
The Israeli embassy in Athens reported that it had no knowledge of Israelis in Greece who were affected by the fires.
It was the deadliest fire season to hit Greece in more than a decade. More than 60 people were killed in 2007 when huge fires swept across the southern Peloponnese region.
“It’s a difficult night for Greece,” Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said late Monday after cutting short a trip to Bosnia and returning to Athens.
Showers that passed over the Greek capital Monday missed the two big fires, but heavy rain was forecast across southern Greece on Wednesday.
Forest fires are common in Greece during the hot, dry summers, and temperatures recently hit highs up to 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).