NEWS

Wildfire kills at least 60 near Athens; three days of mourning called

VASSILIS TRIANTAFYLLOU & GEORGE GEORGIOPOULIOS

TAGS: Fires

Wildfires sweeping through a Greek resort town killed at least 60 people, officials said, including families with children found clasped in a last embrace as they tried to flee the flames.

The inferno was by far Greece's worst since fires devastated the southern Peloponnese peninsula in August 2007, killing dozens. It broke out in Mati late Monday afternoon and was still burning in some areas on Tuesday.

Emergency crews found one group of 26 victims, some of them youngsters, lying close together near the top of a cliff overlooking a beach.

“They had tried to find an escape route but unfortunately these people and their kids didn't make it in time. Instinctively, seeing the end nearing, they embraced,” Nikos Economopoulos, the head of Greece's Red Cross, told Skai TV.

Coast guard vessels and other boats rescued almost 700 people who had managed to get to the shoreline and plucked another 19 survivors and four dead bodies from the sea, the coastguard said.

A Reuters photographer saw at least four dead people on a narrow road clogged with cars heading to a beach.

“Residents and visitors in the area did not escape in time even though they were a few meters from the sea or in their homes,” fire brigade spokeswoman Stavroula Maliri said.

In total, at least 60 people died, Evangelos Bournous, the mayor of nearby Rafina-Pikermi, said.

It was unclear how many people remained unaccounted for as coast guard vessels combed beaches to find any remaining survivors, with military hospitals on full alert, a government spokesman said.

One of the youngest victims was thought to be a 6-month-old baby who died of smoke inhalation, officials said. Of the 156 people injured, 11 were in intensive care, they added.

Mati, 29 km (18 miles) east of the capital, is a popular spot for Greek holiday-makers, particularly pensioners and children at camps.

Greece's fire brigade said the intensity and spread of the wildfire at Mati had slowed on Tuesday as winds died down, but it was still not fully under control. The service urged residents to report missing relatives and friends.

White smoke rose from smoldering fires in parts of Mati early on Tuesday. Burned-out cars were scattered outside gated compounds where three- and four-story buildings bore signs of fire damage.

“It is a difficult night for Greece,” said Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, looking pale after returning from a visit to Bosnia. He declared a three-day period of mourning. [Reuters]

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