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article imageMati's ashes: Raging fire lays waste to Greek town

By Hélène COLLIOPOULOU (AFP)     Jul 24, 2018 in World

A heavy silence hangs over the burnt-out car wrecks and charred animal remains in Mati, a small coastal town east of Athens which on Tuesday was a picture of ash-covered desolation.

Fires have killed 60 people in this area, the authorities say, nearly half of them on the same plot of land.

The scorched bodies of the latest victims were found in groups of four or five, said Vassilis Andriopoulos, a Red Cross rescue worker on site.

Perhaps they were families, or groups of friends, or strangers helping each other in their desperate dash towards the sea which was only 30 or 40 metres away, he said.

The groups included young children, he said.

As they fled from the flames, they probably found themselves trapped between the fire and the edge of a 30-metre cliff, rescue workers believe.

A young girl who tried to jump to safety died, a witness reported.

During the night, an AFP photographer discovered the bodies of four people who were also probably trying to flee the flames, three under a car and one under a motorbike.

Early Tuesday, residents were returning to assess the damage. Some were still searching for missing loved ones.

One woman was looking for her daughter, another for her husband and son -- an indication that the death toll may yet worsen.

The main street has turned into a scene of desolation. The pine trees around the houses are blackened, the sea is grey and there's a stench of smoke everywhere.

Water planes fly over occasionally, scorched cars line the street, and there are several dead dogs.

- 'Mati is gone' -

Stella Petridi, a 65-year-old pensioner, had five dogs. She was in church when she noticed the approaching fire, and rushed home where they were locked in. But she never managed to open the door of her home which was already in flames.

She ran to the beach where rescue workers picked her up, along with others, in the small hours, and brought her to Rafina, a town a little further down the coast.

"Mati is gone", said Rafina's mayor, Evangelos Bournous.

Dozens of people left without a home found refuge in a gymnasium whose manager Raffi Zeronnian returned from holiday early to let them in.

Firefighters report that the fire progressed at "lightning" speed, taking residents by surprise.

Firefighters say the blaze advanced with 'lightning speed'
Firefighters say the blaze advanced with 'lightning speed'
VALERIE GACHE, AFP

"I saw the fire move down the hill at around 6:00 pm and five or ten minutes later it was in my garden," says 60-year old Athanasia Oktapodi whose house, like many here, is surrounded by highly-inflammable pine trees.

"They caught fire. I ran out like a crazy person, got to the beach and put my head in the water. Then the patrol boats came," she said.

Most survivors stayed put in the water for hours, watching their town burn.

- 'Awful holiday' -

Lela Demertzi, 53, was also rescued after making it to the beach, carrying her mother on her back. "My husband stayed behind, he did everything to save our holiday home, and he managed," she said.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told residents, however, that they should leave their belongings behind to save themselves.

Combustible pine trees facilitated the fire's progress as did the many gas bottles in holiday homes that exploded in the blazing heat of the flames.

Alina Marzin, a tourist from Wuppertal in Germany, waited in a hotel restaurant on the water front with her family until 1:30 am to be rescued, constantly fearing that the fire would shatter the windows.

They had originally planned to go from Rafina to the island of Naxos, but cancelled everything.

"What an awful holiday!" Alina said.

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