Fire officials in Greece say at least 74 people have died from surprisingly fast-moving wildfires that struck near Athens on Monday, with the death toll tripling in what has quickly become a national tragedy. The fires have sent people scrambling to escape and have put intense pressure on fire and rescue agencies.
At least six major fires continue to burn in Greece, the national fire service says. The blazes have drawn power from strong winds to devastate homes and forests in towns near the Greek capital. Other areas hit by fire include the island of Crete.
Rescue workers warn the death toll likely will rise, as they go through the scorched remains of hundreds of homes and cars destroyed by the flames. In addition to those killed, 164 adults and 23 children were injured, according to the fire service.
The danger has not let up: From 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesday, fire service officials said, firefighters were called to face 18 forest fires.
Greeks trapped by fires in seaside resorts east and west of the capital have tried to flee by car, motorcycle — even by boat.
People on the beach waved down fishermen. Others just swam out. The Greek Coast Guard, which evacuated hundreds of survivors from beaches, said it had recovered at least four bodies at sea.
Early Tuesday, Greek Red Cross workers made a gruesome discovery — 26 bodies — near the badly burned resort village of Mati, in the Rafina area east of Athens. It’s a popular vacation spot for older Greeks and kids attending summer camps.
“What a terrible day,” Nikos Economopoulos, the Greek Red Cross director, told state TV.
Rescue workers said the victims included children. The charred bodies were found huddled together. Some appeared to be hugging. Red Cross staff said it appeared the victims had been trapped by the fire just a few yards before reaching the sea.
Greece has declared a state of emergency. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called for three days of national mourning. Several European Union countries, as well as the U.S. and Israel, have offered to send help.
“Europe will stand by our Greek friends in these difficult times,” tweeted European Council President Donald Tusk, writing in both Greek and English. “Help is on its way.”
The U.S. Embassy in Athens — which issued alerts about the dangerous fires on Monday afternoon — says American fire experts are visiting Greece to meet with fire officials to discuss how U.S. agencies can help.
Greek firefighters battled the flames throughout the night. The worst fire broke out east of Athens near the town of Rafina. Other fires raged west of Athens in Kineta, and to the north around the town of Pendeli and Kalamos.
The prime minister, Tsipras, cut short his visit to neighboring Bosnia on Monday and quickly returned to Athens. He told reporters that his government will do “whatever is humanly possible to control” the fires.
He also pleaded with Greeks in affected areas to leave immediately. TV footage showed several residents trying to fight the fires with garden hoses or buckets filled with water.
“What’s most important now is your life,” he said. “Properties and material wealth can be replaced. Human lives cannot.”
Wildfires are not unusual during Greece’s hot, dry summers. Dozens of people died during an especially fiery summer in 2007. But Monday’s blazes near Athens spread so quickly, they seemed to catch everyone off guard.
In the towns of Penteli and Rafina, northeast of Athens, children were evacuated from summer camps. SKAI TV news reported that residents and vacationers fled to nearby beaches in Rafina, where they were rescued by the coast guard. Ten panicked tourists, reportedly from Denmark, also fled a beach by boat. Five have been located and rescued.
At least three villages have been evacuated. Evangelos Bournous, the mayor of the seaside town of Rafina, told reporters that he had personally seen many homes go up in flames.