The death toll from a fire which ripped through a Greek coastal town stood at 80 on Wednesday, with dozens of people unaccounted for, as Greece reeled from the horror of victims being burnt alive.
Hundreds of people were trapped in the eastern resort of Mati on Monday night as flames whipped around them. Many jumped into the sea to survive, but others died from suffocation either in their cars, or trapped on the edge of steep cliffs.
The Greek fire brigade said the death of a survivor in hospital had brought the toll up to 80. The service was also receiving dozens of calls reporting missing persons, but it was unclear if some of them were among those found dead, a spokesperson said.
Fires can occur naturally in woodland or brush, ignited by heat from the sun or a lightning strike.
However, the vast majority of wildfires – as many as 90% worldwide – are started by humans, according to experts.
The cause could be barbecue charcoal, a discarded cigarette or even arson. As long as there is fuel and oxygen available, the flames can take hold easily.
Rescue teams combed through the area and the sea on Wednesday, trying to locate anything which could offer clarity on the missing, who are thought to number about 40.
“It was a really terrible situation here,” said Finnish tourist Jaakob Makinen. “We had to run away from the hotel, we ran through the beach, along the beach and then we were caught by fire, so kind of surrounded, we had to go into the water.” reported to News agency.
It was unclear what caused the fire, which spread rapidly through Mati, a maze of narrow streets and dense forest. But some suggested that the sheer force of winds, thick pine, fire and panic was a deadly combination making even the most well-executed evacuation plan futile.
“You can’t leave. My house was up in flames in two minutes,” Elias Psinakis, the Mayor of Marathon, told Greece’s SKAI TV. “With eight Beaufort (wind) and pine you don’t even have time.”
“Armaggeddon,” wrote the daily newspaper Ethnos on its front page, a reference to the Biblical location prophesising the end of times. It carried a photo of a burned Greek flag hanging among the branches of a charred tree.
Fires are common in Greece in the summer months. However, one outspoken cleric had at least one theory of what caused it.
In a vitriolic post, Bishop Ambrosios of Kalavryta said it was the wrath of God because Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is a stated atheist. It drew a sharp response from the Church, which distanced itself from the Bishop’s remarks.
High winds spread the fire, trapping many in homes and vehicles and forcing others into the sea as they tried to escape the flames. As desperate search for survivors continues. Tsipras declared three days of national mourning.
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