Firefighters and rescuers stand on a burnt slope following a wildfire at the village of Mati, near Athens.
The fire came suddenly, and the six friends ran. When they reached the beach and there was nowhere more to run, they swam into the sea, choking and blinded by the smoke and pulled by the strong current.
The same winds that fanned the flames had whipped up the seas, and soon they lost sight of the shore and became disoriented.
For two hours the group struggled to stay afloat, until salvation came in the form of a fishing boat and its Egyptian crew. Nikos Stavrinidis was pulled to safety. So were his wife and two of their friends.
Two more had disappeared into the waves.
"It is terrible to see the person next to you drowning and not be able to help him. You can’t," Stavrinidis said Tuesday, his voice breaking. "That will stay with me."
The couple had gone to prepare their summer home for their student daughter, who planned to visit, when they were caught up in Greece’s deadliest wildfires in more than a decade.
"It happened very fast. The fire was in the distance, then sparks from the fire reached us. Then the fire was all around us," he said. "The wind was indescribable — it was incredible. I’ve never seen anything like this before in my life."
And so they ran, making their way toward the beach.
"We ran to the sea. We had to swim out because of the smoke, but we couldn’t see where anything was," he said.
The current was strong and the smoke blinding, and the friends fought to stay afloat.
"We fell into the sea and tried to distance ourselves, to get away from the carbon dioxide. We went as far in as we could," he said. "But as we went further, there was a lot of wind and a lot of current and it started taking us away from the coast. We were not able to see where we were."
Stavrinidis credited the crew of the fishing boat for saving the surviving friends.
"They jumped into the sea with their clothes still on," he said. "They made us tea and kept us warm. They were great." [AP]