Questions Remain After More Than 80 Killed In Greece Fire

Jul 28, 2018
Originally published on July 29, 2018 5:42 am
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

At least 88 people have now died after fires swept through towns just outside the Greek capital, Athens, less than a week ago. These are the worst fires to hit Greece in decades. The government is investigating arson. Joanna Kakissis reports from the village of Mati, which was largely destroyed.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FLOWING)

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Survivors of the fire are angry. They want to know why more than 90 percent of their seaside village is gone. To hear the survivors recount their harrowing ordeal was crushing.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBULENCE SIREN)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Shouting).

KAKISSIS: At 6 p.m. last Monday, Panagiotis Apalodeimas heard live TV coverage about fires breaking out. The 58-year-old professional driver ran to his balcony and saw the thick pine forest in flames.

PANAGIOTIS APALODEIMAS: (Through interpreter) My sons and I grabbed our IDs and our cell phones and, of course, our dog, Phoebe. We jumped into our car and tried to drive away.

KAKISSIS: But the one road out of town was backed up with cars. The family abandoned their car and ran toward the sea.

APALODEIMAS: (Through interpreter) The fire came at us so quickly. It sounded like a train - like this. I was trying to get to the cliff leading to the sea. There was a path there between some houses. It had steps that led to a beach where we'd go swimming.

KAKISSIS: He remembers 40 or 50 people running behind him chased by a giant, black cloud. He remembers choking on fumes. When the group reached the cliff, half of the people suddenly ran in another direction.

APALODEIMAS: (Through interpreter) I told them there was no path where they were going - just a huge drop from the cliff. They'd land on sharp rocks, or the fire would get them. But they couldn't hear me.

KAKISSIS: That group got stuck on the ledge. He heard their screams as he stumbled down the steps and into the sea.

APALODEIMAS: (Through interpreter) I saw the huge, black cloud covering everything. I couldn't see the land - only sea in all directions.

KAKISSIS: He treaded water for four hours next to his sons and Phoebe the dog. Phoebe died just before the family was rescued by fishermen.

APALODEIMAS: (Speaking Greek).

KAKISSIS: "I thought my sons would die," he says, his voice breaking. "I don't know how we made it."

APALODEIMAS: (Speaking Greek).

KAKISSIS: God must have helped. Those stuck on the ledge were found the next morning - 26 scorched bodies huddled together.

APALODEIMAS: (Speaking Greek).

KAKISSIS: Medical examiner Ilias Bogiokas told reporters that, in many cases, rescue workers have only found wedding bands and crosses amid the ashes and bits of bone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Greek).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Greek).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Greek).

KAKISSIS: Survivors shouted down a government minister visiting the village after the fire, asking, why were we left to die? Natural disasters expert Costas Synolakis explains that the pine forest was highly combustible, especially in the hot, dry and windy summer.

COSTAS SYNOLAKIS: So it was a fire trap. People were not informed that they lived in a high-risk area. There were no hazard maps, no evacuation maps for the area. People didn't know what escape routes were available to them, so there was a lot of confusion.

KAKISSIS: Even if arson was behind the fires, as the government insists, Synolakis says evacuation plans are essential, especially as climate change makes summers hotter and drier.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FLOWING)

KAKISSIS: The slice of paradise that was once Mati is now a scorched ghost town. The sea once filled with swimmers is now patrolled by Navy divers looking for those still missing.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Mati, Greece. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.