Death toll rises above 60 as Greece goes up in flames

Fierce wildfires continued to ravage the Peloponnese and other parts of the country yesterday as authorities confirmed that at least 61 people have died since Friday, marking the worst such disaster in Greeks’ living memory. It was feared that the death toll would rise as rescue services yesterday were unable to access several villages that were surrounded by flames. Dozens of people were reported to be trapped in villages in the western Peloponnese, Corinth, Evia and other areas. Super Puma rescue helicopters airlifted elderly citizens and children from the worst-hit villages, including in the area of Zacharo, where some 37 people have died. One of the most heartrending discoveries for rescue workers in the area was that of the charred body of a mother hugging her four children. The bodies of several villagers were found in the wreckage of a collision between a firefighting truck and a convoy of cars that had apparently been trying to flee the blaze. Many villagers yesterday used hoses and buckets in a vain effort to douse raging flames threatening their homes as they waited for fire service support to arrive by air and land. In several cases, fire support arrived too late, villagers claimed. Water-dropping aircraft from 11 countries, pledged on Saturday, assisted efforts by the Greek fire service and army to extinguish the widespread blazes yesterday. Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis yesterday expressed her thanks for some 31 aircraft pledged by EU nations, Israel and the USA. Winds had abated from the gale force strengths they had reached on Saturday but were erratic. A blaze that broke out in Ancient Olympia burnt forestland around the archaeological site but did not harm the museum or artifacts, the Culture Ministry said. Villages near the ancient site were still burning late yesterday. A blaze that broke out on the slopes of Mount Hymettus, northeastern Athens, on Saturday morning, burning at least one home, was contained before it could cause further damage. Municipal officials claimed to have discovered gas canisters and rags soaked in petrol near the site of the blaze and locals said they heard explosions prior to the fire. Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis declared a national state of emergency on Saturday. «Our country is experiencing an indescribable tragedy,» he said in a televised address. Karamanlis made it clear that his government believes the unusually high number of fires was evidence of plans by arsonists to create mayhem. «I’m in rage,» said the premier. «So many fires at the same time in so many parts of the country, this cannot be a coincidence.» PASOK leader George Papandreou said the ruling conservatives were looking for excuses to cover up their lack of organization. «The government is playing at being the victim and talking of conspiracies to cover up its responsibility for the breakdown of the state,» said Papandreou. «Greeks do not feel safe.» However, Public Order Minister Vyron Polydoras backed Karamanlis’s claim. The minister said last night that Greece faced an «asymmetrical threat.» He did not expand on what he meant by this but echoed the prime minister’s thoughts that the evidence pointed to a concerted effort by arsonists, without suggesting what might be their motives. The government yesterday put out a bounty of between 100,000 to 1 million euros for information leading to the arrest of each alleged arsonist. A 65-year-old man was arrested in Oitylos, Evia, on suspicion of arson and multiple murders. A 76-year-old woman was taken into custody for causing a fire in Zacharo through negligence. Four people were arrested on a building site in Mesorachi, Evia, for alleged arson through negligence. Dozens of other people have been detained for questioning in various parts of Greece. Meanwhile, the government announced yesterday a series of financial measures to help those affected by fires. These include an emergency payment of 3,000 euros for those who lost property and a 10,000-euro payment to the closest relative of anyone who was killed by one of the fires. A special fund was also set up so individuals could make donations. Anyone wanting to donate money can so by visiting the branch of any commercial bank and making a deposit in Account No 2341103053 of the Bank of Greece.