At least 79 people died in huge wildfires around Athens, Greek authorities said Wednesday, as rescuers scoured scorched homes and burned-out cars for survivors of one of the deadliest fire outbreaks in Europe’s modern history.
Scores of locals and holidaymakers fled to the sea to try to escape the flames as they tore through towns near Athens stoked by 100-kilometre-per-hour wind gusts, devouring woodland and hundreds of buildings.
Greek media have described the disaster as a “national tragedy”, while Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras cut short a visit to Bosnia and announced three days of national mourning.
The government has not yet said how many people are still missing from the fires, which broke out on Monday, as firefighters continue to battle blazes in some areas.
Terrified residents and tourists were overtaken by the flames in homes, on foot or in their cars. AFP photographers saw the burnt bodies of people and dogs.
The charred bodies of 26 people, including small children, were discovered at a villa at the seaside resort of Mati, 40 kilometres (25 miles) northeast of Athens, rescuers said.
They were huddled together in small groups, “perhaps families, friends or strangers, entwined in a last attempt to protect themselves as they tried to reach the sea”, said rescuer Vassilis Andriopoulos.
“Mati no longer exists,” said the mayor of nearby Rafina, Evangelos Bournous, adding that more than a thousand buildings and 300 cars had been damaged.
On Wednesday a blaze was threatening houses near the seaside town of Kineta, 25 kilometres west of Athens.
– Deadliest ever Greek fire –
Dozens of firefighters were battling the flames aided by helicopters and planes dropping thousands of gallons of water.
A fire service official said that searches to find those missing in the fires would continue on Wednesday, although there was still no official word on the number of people unaccounted for.
Spokeswoman Stavroula Maliri said authorities knew of “79 dead”, surpassing the 77 people killed in the previous deadliest fires in Greece, on the southern island of Evia in 2007.
Some 187 people have been hospitalised, with 82 being treated on Tuesday evening, including almost a dozen children, most of whom were in a “serious condition”, the fire services said.
Rain is forecast for the coming days, which will help efforts to douse the flames after temperatures topped 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) on Monday.
Dramatic video footage showed people fleeing by car as the tourist-friendly Attica region declared a state of emergency.
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