While trying to escape the flames, clinging on to the trunk of a car, Brian’s clothes caught fire, he lost his grip and was gone. Earlier, he had managed to save the life of four children.
“My name is Zoe Holohan and this is the story of my own private battle. How I beat the odds and lived to tell the tale.” This is what the Dubliner wrote in the prologue of her heartbreaking book “As the Smoke Clears.” In its 354 pages she narrates the events and the aftermath of the day that changed her life forever: July 23, 2018. She describes the unequal battle with the flames, the loss and the deep trauma it left behind, the painful recovery but also her struggle to get justice. Kathimerini exclusively presents the newly released book.
Zoe and Brian first met in 2014. They often joked about their first date being “3 in 1.” They had met for coffee, but were having such a great time that they continued with lunch and then went straight to dinner on the same day. They became inseparable. They immediately moved in together, made mutual friends, traveled and made plans for their future. Their wedding, on July 19, 2018, was an all-day celebration with good friends and music.
Greece was Zoe’s choice of honeymoon destination. She loved mythology, ancient history and, although Brian could not stand the heat, she convinced him that they could combine the sea with walks in downtown Athens. They arrived in Mati on Saturday, July 21, and the owner of the villa they had rented welcomed them with a homemade moussaka. Two days later, on Monday, July 23, they woke up relatively late. The day was terribly hot and they decided to stay in the villa. Brian made breakfast, they swam in the pool, made love and fell asleep.
The next thing she remembers was waking up to the sound of Brian’s voice telling her to get dressed quickly. That they were in danger. She got out of bed and was immediately “hit by a sheet of intense heat.” From the windows, she saw the fire approaching. Panicked, she got dressed and put their passports and some money in a handbag. The power was out and Brian was desperately trying to manually open the garage door for them to escape in their car. But the flames were approaching menacingly and the sky was darkening. “We could either stay there and be trapped in the burning garden or make a run for it on foot,” she says in the book.
She’s not entirely sure how they managed to climb over the 3-meter-high gate. She was wearing sandals and, as she jumped down, she dislocated her kneecap. “Like a child I turned to Brian and begged him to assure me that we were both going to survive. He took my hand and told me that we were going to get through this together, promised that we would make it.”
They started running but they went straight into the fire. They turned around, hoping to get to the sea. But a group of people coming from that direction told them the road was obstructed by burning trees. Darkness had enveloped them by now due to the smoke, they could hardly breathe and flaming embers were swirling around them. They were surrounded and trapped in a living nightmare. Zoe suddenly realized her white dress was on fire. She started screaming and Brian bent down to put out the flames with his hands. “I wanted to cry, but we couldn’t stop, there was no time. We had to keep running,” she says.
Suddenly they saw four children in the middle of the road. One was still in diapers, and stood there crying. They ran to their rescue and suddenly saw a car. They could see that there were other passengers inside but they started waving desperately. When the car stopped, they first put the kids inside, and then realized there was no space left for them. “In the boot!” shouted Zoe. It was their last and only chance of survival. They tried to squeeze into the trunk, curled up and clinging on, leaving it half-open. The car took off at great speed. The flames were closing in. They were both trying to not to fall out onto the road, but the pain Zoe was feeling was getting worse. Her body was slowly burning all over, Brian was desperately trying to comfort her and was removing burning ashes from her body. Suddenly the car stopped.
It had run into a tree and a burning branch had fallen on Brian. He tried to remove it but couldn’t. His clothing burst into flames and he fell out of the trunk. Zoe, while screaming, tried to grab him back. In seconds she saw him disappearing into the flames. “There was nothing more to do then. It was over. I gave into the heat and believed it was my final moment too.”
The miracle rescue
The next thing she remembers is the shape of someone looking at her. She would later learn his name. Manos Tsaliagos, volunteer firefighter. When he found her in the trunk of the car, with burning debris all around, he thought she was dead – and she would have been if he hadn’t found her at that very moment. Just before passing by to continue his rescue mission, he saw her right eye was moving, and that’s how she was saved. He didn’t speak English but tried to comfort her. Her dress had melted to her skin and he tried to put out the fire still burning on her body with bottles of water.
She was rushed to Evangelismos Hospital in central Athens, where she remained on a gurney, unattended, without even a painkiller, for 12 hours. When she accidentally saw her reflection in a mirror, she was terrified. She couldn’t recognize herself. During those hours, she had the same feeling as earlier, in the fire – that she was about to die. But this time the feeling was liberating. She does not know if she drifted off or if she was unconscious when she heard two women calling her name. They were from the Irish Embassy; they had learned what had happened and rushed to her side. They immediately transferred her to a private hospital.
She stayed at the Mitera Hospital for a month. The pain was excruciating, she was afraid to sleep because of the nightmares, she experienced panic attacks while believing her memory had tricked her and Brian had finally been rescued. She lived moments of despair when she learned that her beloved father had died, exhausted from an illness but also from grief. But, despite all the difficulties, she felt safe again. “As if I was in a koukouli [cocoon],” she writes, using the Greek word. She would then undergo seven difficult surgeries, learn to stand on her feet again and take her first steps.
In her book she dedicates 12 chapters to that period, wanting to include stories of incredible care for which she feels grateful: Georgios Moutoglis, the plastic surgeon who, every evening, no matter how tired he was, paid her a visit, the nurses who cooked for her when she had totally lost her appetite and tended to her as if she was family, the physiotherapist who managed to make her laugh and the psychiatrist to whom she eventually opened up about her traumatic experience.
When the insurance company informed her that it was time to go back home to be hospitalized, she fell apart. “I knew that eventually I’d have to face life back in Ireland, without Brian and Dad, but I just hadn’t seen that time arriving so soon,” she writes. Greek doctors, concerned about her reaction, reached out to the insurance company and explained how critical her condition was, and how dangerous it could be for her to travel. They were so worried that they made a very generous offer on behalf of the hospital: to keep her another 12 weeks without charge. But the insurance company explained that in 12 weeks there was no guarantee that the private plane and the hospital bed would still be available.
On August 23, exactly one month after the fire, the whole Mitera Hospital team lined up and she said goodbye to them in tears. When she got in the plane, she felt extremely tired and fell asleep. Little did she know then that her body was being attacked by a rare syndrome and she was in even greater danger.
She had contracted toxic epidermal necrolysis and her body was going into sepsis. When the plane landed, she was immediately rushed to an ICU. A race then started to find the antibiotics cocktail that would save her. “It was like playing Russian roulette. If [the doctor] didn’t find the right combination […], I would not survive,” she explains. When she eventually came out of her coma, everything started from scratch: She should learn how to walk again, to eat (she had a tracheotomy), she had lost all of her remaining hair and her burns required treatment again. The recovery treatments would be exhausting again.
The long road to recovery
Even when she was finally discharged from hospital – seven months after the fire – she had to continue her therapies. It was a long road to recovery. At the same time, she had to face a lot of pending issues that she had ignored. Financial and bureaucratic issues, but also a difficult decision: whether she would go to court together with the other families of the victims.
“I realized that the only way I was going to get answers was by returning to Greece and joining the many who were already taking legal actions,” she explains. It was not a financial matter to her, the official investigation had already identified criminal errors and omissions that had clearly led to the death of her beloved husband and other 101 people, and she considered it important to get some form of justice.
She also felt it was her duty to fight for Brian, who had saved four young children, and to make sure everybody understood that the fire not only killed her husband, but also took her own life – as she knew it. And the lives of their families, their friends.
Toward the end of 2019 she traveled to Greece to give a deposition to the investigating judge Athanasios Marneris. It was a painful process that took hours. Even the translator held her hand, giving her courage. When they left the room, the investigator hugged her and spoke to her with warm words. When returning to Ireland, she felt an unprecedented relief. It was then that she decided to write the book.
When talking to Kathimerini, she did not want to comment on the judicial developments and the three rejections of the investigator’s requests to elevate the charge from misdemeanor to felony. But she hopes that with her book, what some people are trying to achieve won’t happen. “We must not allow July 23 to be forgotten in any way,” she concludes.