As fire crews worked throughout the night, Greeks awoke to what officials called a “national tragedy,” as at least 50 people have been declared dead and hundreds injured after wildfires ravaged populated areas in eastern Attica outside of Athens.
The coastal resort town of Mati 25 miles (40 km) northeast of the capital was decimated as raging fires chased hundreds of people into the sea, 700 of whom have been rescued, according to Greek Coast Guard officials.
Others were not so lucky, as authorities said they found multiple dead bodies of children and adults clinging together near a beach.
“I was briefed by a rescuer that he saw the shocking picture of 26 people tightly huddled in a field some 30 meters from the beach,” Nikos Economopoulos, head of Greece’s Red Cross, told Skai TV. “They had tried to find an escape route, but unfortunately these people and their kids didn’t make it in time.”
More than a thousand homes and scores of cars were reduced to ashes before the wildfires were brought under control, and the death toll is expected to rise as rescue crews continue searching areas devastated by the blazes.
The government reported at least 172 injured, including 16 children, with 11 adults in serious condition.
The incident marks Greece’s worst wildfire disaster since August 2007, when fires raged across the Peloponnese peninsula and killed dozens.
Foreign governments such as Israel rushed to give aid to their Greek firefighting counterparts, also issuing a tweet in show of support.
Israel always stands ready to help its friends. https://t.co/cpORfODAcU
— Israel in the EU (@IsraelinEU) July 24, 2018
The government of Cyprus sent military support to battle the fires, and other countries including Spain, Italy, Germany, Poland and France have also sent help in the form of additional planes, vehicles and firefighters.
The United States Embassy sent a tweet of condolences to the families who lost lives in the fire.
We express our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of the victims of the fires in #Attica. Our thoughts are with @pyrosvestiki @Hellenic_MOD and all of the brave first responders as they continue to save lives. #Πυρκαγιά #Κινέτα #Ματι https://t.co/Onu8wNKrOe
— U.S. Embassy Athens (@USEmbassyAthens) July 24, 2018
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras cut short a trip to Bosnia and returned to Greece to coordinate efforts with his government, also declaring in the meantime three days of national mourning.
In addition to eastern Attica, areas west and south of Athens also suffered severe fire damages.
In the coastal town of Kineta, dozens of homes burned prompting residents to flee in cars or on mopeds. The fires spread as far as the island of Crete, where rural areas outside of Hania have been affected and the city’s historic War Museum destroyed after firefighters tried to stop the uncontrollable blaze.
Wildfires in Greece have been a common issue during the country’s exceedingly hot and dry summer months.
Greek officials quoted by the Agence France-Presse news agency said that investigations into what caused the fires are already underway.
“Fifteen fires had started simultaneously on three different fronts in Athens,” government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said, adding that Greece requested drones from the United States to “observe and detect any suspicious activity.”
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