Traumatised survivors have revealed how a 45ft ‘Dante’s Inferno’ that ripped through a Greek resort was so intense pine cones exploded ‘like grenades’ and mice were ‘jumping off cliffs’.
Some who remained in their homes emerged ‘looking like lifeless zombies’ with terrible burns after the rampaging forest fire swept through Mati, 25 miles from Athens.
Others spent hours swimming in the darkness after plunging into the sea as flames raged towards the shoreline, devouring houses and cars at an ‘unbelievable pace’ and spreading panic among locals.
New witness accounts of the tragedy, in which at least 85 were killed, emerged as coffins were transported to morgues in Athens and relatives of the dozens still missing gathered to have their DNA tested hoping to locate their loved-ones.
One man, Stelios Nikolaou, whose house was left in ruins, likened the fire to ‘Dante’s Inferno’ and was barely able to get his wife, son and dog, Fidel, out of the house before dashing to the sea amid chaos and confusion in the village.
Traumatised survivors have described how a 45ft ‘Dante’s Inferno’ that ripped through the Greek resort of Mati was so intense pine cones exploded ‘like grenades’ and mice jumped off cliffs into the sea
New witness accounts of the tragedy, in which at least 82 were killed, emerged as coffins were transported to morgues in Athens and relatives of the dozens still missing gathered to have their DNA tested hoping to locate their loved-ones
Authorities believe many of those listed as missing are dead with their remains in the Athens city morgue. Relatives have been told to provide DNA samples so that identification can be carried out
‘Flames 15 metres high were ripping down the slope at an unbelievable pace,’ he told Anthee Carassava for The Times.
‘People were screaming, cars were exploding, pine cones were popping like grenades. One of them even hit Fidel, setting him ablaze and forcing me to throw him into the sea. The fire was so hot and the destruction so overwhelming that even mice were jumping off the cliffs, diving into the sea.’
The family swam in the sea for hours with hundreds of others before rescue crews arrived. But as they waited they witnessed the haunting image of elderly people emerging from their homes with terrible burns having apparently remained in their homes or been unable to flee in time.
Nikolaou’s wife likened them to ‘lifeless zombies — their faces completely charred and their clothes glued to their bodies’. She said the pensioners collapsed ‘one by one’ as people rushed to help them.
Dozens of people are still unaccounted for but search and rescue teams have scaled back their house-to-house searches looking for bodies.
Authorities believe many of those listed as missing are dead with their remains in the Athens city morgue. Relatives have been told to provide DNA samples so that identification can be carried out.
Many of the bodies are burned beyond recognition and can only be identified by dental records.
Rescue teams are going from house to house as they look for missing people or any signs of life in the village of Mati, near Athens
While many houses were burned to the ground, there were areas where properties remained untouched highlighting the unpredictability of the rampaging blaze
Residents and terrified holidaymakers were overtaken by the flames in homes, on foot or in their cars. AFP photographers saw the burnt bodies of people and dogs
Queues of people have been forming outside the Coroners office in Athens with loved ones wanting to provide a DNA sample.
Meanwhile as public anger towards the Government over the loss of life rages fire chiefs have said people in Mati and the adjoining town of Rafina had just 20 minutes to escape the inferno.
Criticisms has been levelled at local officials for lack of an evacuation plan which contributed to the high death toll.
Poor building controls that allowed homes to be built in a haphazrd way and narrow roads that often end in a dead end have also been blamed for contributing to a lack of escape route.
But fire chief Dimitris Stathopoulos, head of the union of fire brigade employees, said the residents of Mati would have had just 20 minutes to reach safety after 60mph gusts of wind fanned the wildfires.
‘Not even 1,000 airplanes would have helped prevent this catastrophe,’ said Dimitris Stathopoulos.
‘In that cursed hour, the fire became a blowtorch aimed at the settlement.’
Supplies are being prepared to be distributed for aid at a sports hall after the wildfires hit the village of Mati, in Rafina, Greece
Wasteland: Shocking images show how fire ravaged the countryside around Mati before descending on the coastal resort
A helicopter drops water on woodland in a bid to dampen smouldering trees in the hillsides above Mati on Wednesday night
He said wildfires were a common occurrence durng the summer but in the past the wind blew in from the sea towards the mountains and sheielded Mati from harm.
But on Monday afternoon it switched direction and powered the flames towards the town.
Such was the ferocity of the gales that meant flames were able to leap across a highway that seperates Mati from the pine forest slopes.
Survivors have told how flames reached 50ft in the air and fireballs were sent shooting across the sky.
Elias Psinakis,the Mayor of Marathon which includes Mati, said they had an evacuation plan in place but the speed of the fire meant it could not be put into action.
He also said lack of planning for the town contributed to few escape routes. The main road leading down towards the sea became choked with cars and many of the other roads are only wide enough of a single vehicle.
Psinaki said: ‘There is a civil protection plan, every municipality has one, but there is no time to do anything when the wind is so strong.
‘Unfortunately, this area is chaotically built. People couldn’t find a way out to save themselves. Most of the roads are dead ends … and the rest are very narrow.’
Residents who fled from Mati are slowly returning but are faced with clogged streets from hundreds of people who have driven from Athens to look at the burned out homes.
Tempers flared after cars became stuck in long traffic jams on the narrow streets near the sea front.
One resident said:’ It is disgusting that they come here to look and take photographs. It is not a tourist site and they are ghouls.’
Desperate families have released pictures of missing loved-ones as rescuers sift through the charred remains of houses looking for survivors
Meanwhile, forensic teams have carried out further searches of the scorched and blackened field where 26 people were found huddled together as they tried to flee the deadly wildfire that destroyed the coastal town of Mati.
The development came as search teams found a body in a neighbouring building.
The death toll in Greece’s deadliest fire rose to 85 after a 73-year-old man who was in intensive care died.
At the villa where rescue workers found families huddled together in a final embrace the heat generated by the blaze was so hot it turned the metal from an Audi A4 into molten metal.
Silver droplets from where the car had melted pooled at the metal gate across the entrance to the villa.
Further down a driveway were two burnt out cars surrounded by the charred pine trees that had fanned the flames. It was here where search teams found the 26 bodies.
It is believed the victims, who included several children, had been attempting to reach the sea but became disorientated in the thick, choking smoke that blanketed the area.
While the bodies have been removed and taken the main mortuary in Athens identification could take time as they many are so badly burned they are unrecognisable, according to rescue workers.
Staurola Stergiadoa, a volunteer with a search team, said looking for dead bodies had been a harrowing task.
‘We do not know what we will find when we go into a house,’ she said.
‘There are so many people that have been reported missing we have to assume they are somewhere in the homes’
As the field is the site of the biggest mass casualties fire forensic teams were today back looking for any other evidence might help in identification.
A mobile phone was found alongside the body found in a neigbouring home, but authorities said no identification had yet been made.