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article imageFire at their backs, Greek elderly flee with grandchildren

By Sophie MAKRIS (AFP)     Jul 26, 2018 in World

Yiannis Philippopoulou was sure he saw his nine-year-old twins picked up by a boat after they fled the flames. But days since the family's chaotic escape from the inferno, the girls appear to have vanished.

As Greece's worst wildfires tore through the seaside resort of Mati, near Athens, this week, families ran for their lives towards the safety of the shoreline.

The village has a large community of retirees, and during school holidays it is filled with young children spending time by the sea with their grandparents.

Vassiliki and Sofia Philippopoulou were in a car with their grandparents near Mati when Yiannis received a call saying their trip had been cut short by the fire.

The father told Greek television afterwards that he thought he saw an image circulating of the girls on board a rescue vessel picking up residents huddled along the beach.

But when the parents of those children came forward, the twins were nowhere to be found.

Mati, a patchwork of small villas an hour's drive east of Athens, is popular among Greeks as a weekend getaway destination, and many in the capital have second homes there.

While many of those who perished still need to be formally identified, it appears the elderly and the very young bore the brunt of the fire's fury.

At least 82 people are now known to have died on the coast around Athens in Europe's deadliest wildfires this century.

Four days after the catastrophe, there is still no official word on the number of missing. But images of the twins' young faces now appear alongside their grandparents on a website set up by residents to document those who've disappeared.

- 'We weren't prepared' -

"The most important thing is that Katerina is safe," says Yannis Tsaganou Profitou, 88, casting a loving gaze at his nine-year-old granddaughter outside the fire-damaged family home.

The child recounts their daring escape through streets rendered invisible by smoke, eventually finding refuge from the flames in a beachside hotel.

She speaks assuredly, but admits "I cried in the car."

Grandmother Sophia says she drove like a maniac, zigzagging around fallen burning tree branches to get her husband and Katerina to safety.

"It all happened so fast," she recalls. "No one warned us, Yannis told us to get our stuff but we didn't even have time for that, the flames were already here."

But Mati is filled with stories of more tragic outcomes.

Raging wildfires have killed 74 people in Greece while devouring homes and forests
Raging wildfires have killed 74 people in Greece while devouring homes and forests

One elderly couple was burned alive in their home after the woman saved her two grandchildren by wrapping them in wet towels and getting them to the beach before returning to her disabled husband in the house.

Just on Wednesday, the body of an elderly woman was found in Mati by her son.

Yannis Xydis came to the village to look for his pensioner father.

"We have all the memories from the family holidays we spent here," he says. "We knew that a fire here would be dangerous. But in 40 years they never reached Mati.

"We weren't prepared: no evacuation plan, no advice given to young people or the elderly," he adds.

Along one street in Mati, a child's toys are abandoned outside a burned-out villa.

The owner, Phivi Angelopoulou, recalls through tears how she lost a disabled friend who drowned after fleeing the fire.

Angelopoulou had travelled to Rafina, a neighbouring town, to pick up her granddaughter when she saw the first flames in Mati.

"I knew we had to leave but I told myself that there would be sirens to warn us," Angelopoulou, whose filmmaker husband Theo died in 2012.

"But there was nothing. Nothing worked, no (warnings on the) television, nothing from the state, not even from other people."

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