MATI, Greece (Reuters) – A wildfire killed at least 50 people and injured scores more as it swept through a small resort town near Athens and trapped families with children behind walls of smoke and flames as they tried to flee to the beach.
Emergency crews found one group of 26 victims, some of them youngsters, lying close together in a field just 30 meters from the sea near Mati in eastern Greece.
“They had tried to find an escape route but unfortunately these people and their kids didn’t make it in time. Instinctively, seeing the end nearing, they embraced,” Nikos Economopoulos, head of Greece’s Red Cross, told Skai TV.
The fire was by far Greece’s worst since flames devastated the southern Peloponnese peninsula in August 2007, killing dozens. It broke out in Mati late Monday afternoon and was still burning in some areas on Tuesday morning.
Coastguard vessels were combing beaches to find any remaining survivors, with military hospitals on full alert, a government spokesman said.
A Reuters photographer saw at least four dead on a narrow road clogged with cars heading to a beach and heard reports of several more casualties.
“Residents and visitors in the area did not escape in time even though they were a few meters from the sea or in their homes,” fire brigade spokeswoman Stavroula Maliri said.
Mati is in the eastern Rafina region, a popular spot for Greek holiday-makers, particularly pensioners and children at camps, 29 km (18 miles) east of the capital.
The 26 deaths came on top of the more than 20 reported by government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos earlier on Tuesday.
One of the youngest victims was thought to be a six-month-old baby who died of smoke inhalation, officials said. Of the 156 people injured, 11 were in intensive care, they added.
The coastguard said four more bodies were retrieved from the sea. In total, coastguard and other vessels rescued 696 people who had fled to beaches. Boats plucked another 19 people alive from the water.
Greece’s fire brigade said the intensity and spread of the wildfire at Mati had slowed on Tuesday as winds died down, but it was still not fully under control. The service urged residents to report missing relatives and friends.
White smoke rose from smoldering fires in parts of Mati early on Tuesday. Burned-out cars were scattered outside gated compounds where three- and four-storey buildings bore signs of fire damage.
“It is a difficult night for Greece,” said Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, looking pale after returning from a visit to Bosnia.
Greece issued an urgent appeal for help to tackle fires that raged out of control in several places across the country, destroying homes and disrupting major transport links.
Cyprus and Spain offered assistance after Greece said it needed air and land assets from European Union partners.
“Our thoughts go to Greece and the victims of the terrible fires. France and Europe express their solidarity with both Sweden and Greece and offer help,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in tweets published in French and Greek. Sweden has also suffered forest fires.
Newspaper printed banner headlines including “Killer Fire” and “Hell” and reported fears the death toll would climb.
Authorities said they would use an unmanned drone from the United States to monitor and track any suspicious activity.
Tsipras and Greek officials have expressed misgivings at the fact that several major fires broke out at the same time.
Wildfires are not uncommon in Greece, and a relatively dry winter helped create the current tinder-box conditions. It was not immediately clear what ignited the fires.
A hillside of homes was gutted by flames east of Athens. A mayor said he saw at least 100 homes and 200 vehicles burning.
Earlier on Monday, Greek authorities urged residents of a coastal region west of Athens to abandon their homes as another wildfire burned ferociously, closing one of Greece’s busiest motorways, halting train links and sending plumes of smoke over the capital.
The main Athens-Corinth motorway, one of two road routes to the Peloponnese peninsula, was closed and train services were canceled.
Additional reporting by Alkis Konstantinidis, Angeliki Koutantou, writing by George Georgiopoulos; Editing by Eric Meijer and Andrew Heavens