A survivor’s account

A survivor’s account

I am an American artist who teaches painting on the island of Skyros in August.

July 23, I was visiting my friend in Rafina, at her beautiful house on a steep cliff above the water in Kokkino Limanaki, a semicircular canyon created by cliffs lined with pines and houses looking down.

We had prepared a dinner for guests arriving that night from America. I was to stay there while she drove to the airport to pick them up.

That afternoon we stood on her roof watching a cloud of smoke from a distant fire grow closer, and the firefighters’ water-dropping helicopters and planes began to fly right over her house, to refill from the sea at Kokkino Limanaki. She called a neighbor who lived in the direction of the smoke, to offer her refuge.

The neighbor, Afrodite, appeared, as she departed for the airport. My friend told us, “If you have to get out, close all the doors and windows and go to the water.” None of us thought this would be necessary.

As I was cutting a watermelon, I saw orange sparks flying on the wind in to the pine trees in front of her house. I went upstairs to close the doors and windows, and saw flames all along the property line, 10 meters from the house. Closing the back door, Afrodite and I sped for the path down to the water. I had my phone, my eyeglasses, which I folded on the side of my underwear, slip-on shoes, and Afrodite had two purses.

The long beach canyon was filled with smoke, an apocalypse image, distant people black silhouettes. The fire could now be seen as orange tongues of flame consuming my friend’s house and trees. Walking fast, we caught up with the others, as we all distanced ourselves from the smoke. At the other end of the beach, I clambered into the rocks, and looking back, could only see an approaching wall of black smoke. Powerful gusts of wind bore down on us as the fire jumped along the cliff, and the sounds of cars exploding. I had to keep going fast along the rocks to escape the blasts of wind and smoke and showers of sparks.

I was engulfed in a black cloud of smoke and burning cinders, so I sank into the water, still trying to hold my phone out, and keep my shoes. I was pushed along the rocks by the wind, away from the beach. I was inhaling smoke, unable to keep sparks from my hair. My phone was wet and impeding, so I threw it to the rocks. I went underwater, opening my eyes to see the shapes of the rocks beneath me, coming up for air only to inhale smoke. Choppy waves and gusts pushed me out to sea. I swam to some rocks to catch my breath behind them.

I looked out to sea and saw a small boat, and further away, a pontoon boat, and a woman who had been on the beach was far out in the water, shouting to them.

A strong gust came and for a moment the entire sky was black, filled with orange sparks. Some bags blew into the water in front of me, which floated to me a heavy cotton scarf. I covered my head with it, as protection from burning cinders, and covered my nose from the smoke, as I swam.

The small boat appeared again, now about 50 yards out, in showers of sparks.

I was attempting to crawl up a crevice, in order to breathe behind a boulder – from which perch the boat saw me – and began gesturing and shouting. I thought, would the boat explode like the cars? Would I be able to continue in the water, alone into the night?

I slid back into the water and swam hard. They were in a hurry to flee the approaching firestorm. I got to the side of their boat, and two of the four men pulled me out of the water and threw me into the space between the steering console and the side. They welcomed me and tried to speak English – one of them said, “My cousin lives in Ohio” – they were in brown camouflage suits – army, not coast guard, in a recreational craft. They let me off at the pier in Rafina, where I was walked to a small coast guard vessel, told to go into the cabin, drink water, sit down.

There was no water. Inside, a female coast guard glared, and four other rescuees sat, drenched and speechless. There was one lifejacket, stuck under layers of wiring. The port became more windy and smoke-filled. All the roads were closed. Ambulances were going nowhere. The hospital was also engulfed. No drinking water, blankets, medical. No information offered. Names not taken.

I feared that my friend’s car had exploded on her way to the airport. If she was still alive, she thought I was dead.

The port’s vast cement pier was covered with parked cars and one giant ferry stood open. We were walked out of the boat, to a bus stop. “Go into this bus stop – it blocks the smoke. There are no trees here. Stay calm. Sit down.”

We stood barefooted, cuts on feet and legs, half-naked and sopping, for several hours. Flames could be seen rocketing up behind a small chapel just behind the marina, and the wind was very strong. I walked to the edge of the port pier, to judge the distance to swim to the next promontory – half a mile.
As we stood using the bus stop as a wind block, an elderly man appeared to ask the coast guard, in Italian, for a boat to rescue his five family members, including three children, who he said had been in the water for two hours. The coast guard told him it was too dangerous. He explained that he was a “maritime captain” and that he only needed a boat, saying he knew how to go straight in and get out. He was again told no, and he furiously walked away in the direction of the fire, and disappeared into the black smoke.

The road leading away from the harbor was a stalled line of people in their cars trying to escape. An ambulance appeared, and offered no help, and left. An SUV police vehicle appeared, and we five were taken beside the stalled traffic to an office building just over the harbor, where they said we were safe, and that there was Wi-Fi. We were taken inside, told to stay calm, and that they would come back. The air was good, and we were able to sit down, to dry.

But no Wi-Fi nor phones.

Smoke was drifting by and the trees were churning, so we walked out, crossed the lane of stopped traffic, to the shore to see the approaching fire. There were two 10-year-old children beside themselves with terror, sobbing on the steps.

After an hour of this, we decided to walk back to the port to try to find anyone. Inside the coast guard offices, I found the same female officer, and asked to write down my name, and my friend’s name. Seeing my name, she said, “Inside, someone is looking for you.” And there was Afrodite, with her two purses, sopping and alive. She had been rescued from the water with others from the Kokkino Limanaki beach. How did they survive?

Another rescued person told me she had left her sister behind on the beach. When she gave her name at the coast guard station, they said her sister was looking for her. She nearly fainted.

We realized our eyes were burning/stinging and we washed them with fresh water.

We sat outside on the curb for a long while.

I went to get the pair of children from the office building, to record their names.

Along came my friend – alive. She and her guests had driven past the road blocks, through her still-burning neighborhood, looking for me, expecting the worst.

Most houses were ruined, but hers was not.

She had found us the one remaining hotel room, which we five slept in.

She had been able to reach friends and neighbors and knew all were alive and spending the night in vigilance. A close friend who lived a block back from the beach was found in a hospital in Athens, having suffered burns to her hands and feet.

The next morning we drove through the apocalyptic landscape, and were denied entrance to her driveway, by insufferably officious policemen, who physically restrained her, until an English-speaking neighbor, who had lost his own house, intervened. He offered to accompany us, and together we walked onto the devastated cliff overlooking the bay of Kokkino Limanaki. The neighbor who had with walked us stood there and cried. I saw the far promontory where I had gone into the water. The neighbor told me that a group of people had been found alive that morning, on the far end of the beach before the rocks.

In the house, everything still existed, and was as before, watermelon ready.

I was able to recover my credit cards, passport, laptop.

I had an invisible, painful, fleck in my eye, and was breathing shallowly in the air at Kokkino Limanaki. I am now in Skyros, where the air is fine, and fresh, and have been seen at the hospital, and given eyedrops.

There is still no electricity nor water at Kokkino Limanaki. Reports vary greatly: 20 rescued from the sea; 700 rescued from the sea. Many missing. Many dead.

There is great anger that evacuations were not ordered, and at the lack of coordination – for instance, the firefighter planes were flying right over the fire as it approached the coast. People question the absence of coast guard vessels.

I am ever grateful to the heroes in their tiny boat for saving me from the inferno.

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