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Families search for missing in wake of Greek wildfires

WILDFIRE GREECE
Valerie GACHE / AFP
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Many took to the sea to escape fast-moving flames

Some families in Greece are desperately seeking relatives in the wake of a raging wildfire in seaside areas near Athens. The fire has taken at least 79 lives.

Authorities are searching for dozens of missing people, many of whom are thought to have fled the blaze, perhaps taking to the sea.

The Associated Press quoted some survivors who saw people fleeing to beaches and being forced to swim out to sea despite gale-force winds and high waves to escape choking smoke and flaming pine cones raining down into the water.

One father said he had seen his nine-year-old twin daughters on TV being rescued by a fishing boat. Yiannis Philippopoulos has not heard from the girls, Sophia and Vasiliki or from their grandparents, who they were with on the day, according to the BBC.

“We went to the hospitals and police and then the fire brigade said the last resort would be to look for them in the mortuary,” Philippopoulos told Greek media. After visiting the morgue and providing DNA, Philippopoulos and his wife saw a TV report, showing two girls who resembled their daughters being rescued. Later reports, however, said the girls were believed to be the daughters of another man, who was onboard with his wife.

The BBC said that coastal patrol boats combed the shoreline on Wednesday, searching for survivors and bodies, while rescue teams searched houses and cars.

On Tuesday, the bodies of 26 adults and children who apparently died embracing each other were found on a cliff top, the broadcaster said.

“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,” said Nikos Economopoulos, head of Greece’s Red Cross.

The death toll has already exceeded Greece’s last major fire disaster, which was in 2007, when 77 people were killed in the southern Peloponnese peninsula.

Two fires on either side of Athens started Monday within hours of each other, fanned by gale-force winds that hampered firefighting efforts, AP explained.

The New York Times said that wildfires are an annual occurrence in Greece, but a drought and a recent heat wave, with temperatures over 100 degrees, have helped make this fire particularly dangerous.

“The speed with which the blaze northeast of Athens spread took many by surprise, and is believed to have contributed to the high death toll,” AP said.

“We couldn’t see any fire. The fire came suddenly. There was so much wind, we didn’t realize how it happened,” said Anna Kiriazova, 56, who survived with her husband by shutting themselves in their house and dousing it with water instead of trying to flee through the flames.

“We shut ourselves in the house, we closed the shutters, we had towels over our faces,” she told AP. “The inferno lasted about an hour. I have no words to describe what we lived through.”

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