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“As if we were in a horror movie”: Survivors speak about Athens wildfires

“It was as if we were in a horror movie,” say survivors when they speak about their experience and how they managed to escape death in the wildfires in North-east Athens and Attica.

“We were seeing the flames and the smoke on the mountain and our friends were telling us to stay for a coffee; but I was tired and pressing my mother to go,” describes Sotiris how they managed to escape the inferno of Monday. It was already 6:30 in the afternoon and he wanted to return home.

His senior mother had spent the weekend by friends in Mati and he had driven 30 km from Athens to pick her up. Five minutes after mother and son left, the friends left behind started to run for their lives. The flames had reached the house yard and burned down the parked car within minutes.

The fire started in Daou area on Mount Penteli at 5 o’ clock on Monday afternoon. Forest areas in flames is not an uncommon view in summer.

Hardly anyone in Neos Voutzas, in Mati and in the other settlements in east Attica thought the blaze would quickly move the lowlands and sweep away the children laughter, the happy moments around the family table, the dogs’ barking, the joy of summer.

Hardly anyone thought that the beautiful resort would turn into a waste land of ashes, death and endless pain.

80-year-old Maria says that she escaped death because she managed to close the window and door shutters. The shutters made of iron were aiming to protect her and her property from thieves; ultimately they protected the elderly woman from the fire.

She stayed in the barricaded home and tried to keep calm. Some smoke had leaked in to the house. “When the atmosphere cleared, I opened the back door and left for the beach.”

Picture shot by Norwegian Bjørk Ellingsbø via social media.

Maria is not the only one who reached the beach in order to flee the fireball. Some did not. They also sat in their homes with all shutters closed. But many did not survive. 81 is the official death toll, dozens are still missing.

Some died trapped in the flames and  the suffocating air, others burned in their homes and cars and some were drowned in the sea.

One after the other, local residents and summer visitors describe scenes of chaos and despair and many describe their experience as if they were part of a horror movie.

“I … what can I say? It was like .. a movie,” a local says obviously still in shock 48 hours after the horrible experience. The man and his family managed to survive because the locked themselves in the house with shutters closed. “We had no choice, had we gone outside we would have burned in the high heat,” the man says.

“When the fire broke out we were thinking what to do.” Like in times before, they were waiting for fire service and the aircraft to take it under control. But this time it was different.

“The speed was unbelievable, as if the fire and the wind were coordinated,” he recalls.

The West wind was blowing with 9 Beaufort, at times also with intensity of up to 11 Beaufort. At the peak of the wind increased, the flames were carried away as “if they were …jumping” a friend told me pointing out that that some plots and houses were burned but not all of their surrounding area.

Apart from minor damages in the double-household house and 3 burned vehicles the man’s family survived without injuries. But they lost a neighbor and friend. The woman didn’t make it. The family is without electricity since 6:30 Monday.

“We were walking through the flames, there were flames everywhere, left and right and smog. We were suffocating,” another resident tells media.

A teenager girl describes how the family left the multistory building and run to the beach with their dog. “We stayed in the water for two hours. At some point when things had calmed down a bit, we saw flames and smoke coming from an apartment.” They were rescued and taken to a hotel in the area late at night. “All night we were hearing explosions.”

Another woman says that the sky turned yellow between 5:30 and 6:00. “We could not breathe. Not even when we were in the sea, we could not breathe.”

A father says that they were holding their 22-month-old baby in the sea for five hours.

A woman tells Skai TV that that the family with two children, a relative and a dog abandoned their car and started walking to Kokkino Limanaki beach, after they saw people get burned in other cars.

“Items were flying in the air, items on fire, it was like a horror movie,” she said.

At the beach where hundreds of old and young were seeking protection  …chaos and despair. People were screaming, people were fainting, nobody could breath.

“The aunt found a board and swam out in the sea with the children on it. They swam for more than five hours until they were rescued around midnight but a boat,” the woman said and broke into tears thanking all their relatives and friends who are providing the family with accommodation, clothes, shoes and even money. “We lost  everything, our home is marked as red by the controlling state engineers. Red means that the house is not habitable anymore.

Several fire survivors say that the road to Athens was blocked and motorists were diverted to the coast road that was also blocked with an endless traffic jam and the flames over their heads. In the mostly narrow streets of Mati, many drove into roads ending in deadlock, others stuck traffic jams.

They all agree on one point: that there was nobody from local or other authorities around to tell the citizens what to do. There were no instructions to the people. There was no order for evacuation.

At 5:39 Monday afternoon, Chef of Royal Olympia Hotel Panos Kokkinidis posted a video of the approaching fire on his Facebook account.

A6 6:20 he posted “If there is no miracle, people will die.”

For chef Kokkinidis there was no miracle. He and his family died in the fire.

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