Having saved their two grandchildren from the flames, the 73-year-old and his wife stood in the water for around five hours before it was safe to return to dry land.
Spyros Spyridis clung to life for 145 days at the Greek capital’s Evangelismos Hospital, battling injuries sustained in Mati, the area worst hit by last July’s deadly fires in eastern Attica. The 73-year-old’s first surgery lasted eight hours, but the skin grafts didn’t take. He had more procedures, suffered respiratory problems on several occasions and developed the kind of psychological issues that are so common in patients who spend a long time in intensive care. He lost the battle on December 15, becoming the tragedy’s 100th victim.
Kathimerini spoke with his children, Costas and Katerina, to learn more about the man who on July 23 managed to save his two grandchildren from the flames despite a slew of health problems.
Spyridis was born in Athens and grew up in the neighborhood of Ano Petralona before his family settled in the northern suburb of Aghia Paraskevi. That is where he met his wife, a seamstress who visited the family home to make a dress for his mother. He went on to work at the Public Power Corporation, specializing in hydroelectric projects.
He tackled his job much like a conductor, enjoying the organizational, managerial and problem-solving skills it required. He also traveled a lot for work, especially to the company’s hydroelectric plants on the Nestos and Aliakmonas rivers in northern Greece. In 1986 they moved to the area, settling in a village called Ammos just outside the town of Veria. He loved those parts and stayed there until he retired.
Time took its toll on Spyridis, though. His mobility became seriously impaired by spinal injuries and he had heart problems, among other complaints.
Last summer, his son Costas rented a house in Mati for the summer so his wife and two children could spend the school break near the sea while he worked. He invited his parents to come and spend a few days with them.
When the fire broke out on the afternoon of July 23, Costas was on his way back from work and got stuck in traffic on Marathonos Avenue. Over in Mati, Spyridis had packed his wife and their two grandchildren into his car and tried to leave the seaside town when he saw the fire approaching. Like hundreds of others with the same idea, they too found themselves trapped and had to flee on foot. They saw an opening through the smoke leading to the sea.
Carrying a child each in their arms, the two elderly grandparents managed to scramble down rocks into the water – but not before they were hit by blasts of burning heat from the fire. They stood in the water for around five hours, trying to amuse the children with games so they wouldn’t be frightened by the smoke, the embers and ash raining down on them or the explosions of cars over on the shore which brought fresh outbursts of flames.
Those long hours in the water proved to be a serious problem later for many Mati residents who took refuge in the sea, as their burns and wounds became infected.
When the blazes died down, Spyridis took his wife and grandchildren to a hotel in Mati that was serving as a shelter for the fire-hit residents.
They had not received any assistance from the fire service or the police up until that moment, and when an ambulance came to take them to hospital, Spyridis insisted that the children be tended to first. The emergency medical technicians, however, were more concerned about the 73-year-old, as his injuries were much more serious. He had suffered second- and third-degree burns over 19 percent of his body, across his arms, legs and back. A second ambulance took his wife and their two grandchildren.
For weeks, the family was separated as the children were treated at one hospital and the grandparents in another.
At Evangelismos, Spyridis was kept on a different floor from his wife, who also sustained burns. “The first few days were torture for them; they were in terrible pain and had a high fever,” says their daughter, Katerina.
Spyridis’s wife was discharged in mid-October, but his case was much more serious. Despite undergoing successive surgeries, he remained optimistic. “He was the kind of person who never shows pain, never complains,” says Katerina. Even the doctors were impressed by his fortitude, nicknaming him “Highlander” after the Scottish warrior from the film. “I remember him saying that he wanted to get out so he could continue his vacations with the kids,” remembers Costas.
The 73-year-old had to be put on a ventilator at some point and there was also a time when he was unaware of his surroundings and kept trying to leave his bed. By and large, though, he was calm and lucid.
“We went through the entire gamut of emotions. There were days when we genuinely believed he would get better. Just a month ago I thought he would be released,” says Katerina. “We had all these contradictory feelings. One day you would hear something encouraging and the next you’d be down in the dumps,” Costas adds.
Both express their gratitude to the doctors and staff at Evangelismos for their efforts to save their father’s life. They are also grateful for the support of the child psychologists at the Georgios Gennimatas Hospital and the help the family are receiving from them to this day.
Katerina reminisces on the last time she communicated with her father, just a few days before he died. The 73-year-old was unable to speak because of the ventilator, but he recognized his children and had tears in his eyes.
“I felt this incredible sense of pride that he gave off. There were times when he was in hospital when I felt myself breaking, but I told myself that if he could carry on without showing his pain, I could not give up,” says Katerina.
Costas is still trying to understand how his 73-year-old father managed to save the children given his mobility and health problems. “There is no limit to man’s strength,” he says.