Woman Whose Family Perished in Fire Sues Greek Officials

FILE- In this file photo dated Tuesday, July 24, 2018, firefighters stand on the cliff top where burned trees hug the coastline in Mati east of Athens, after wildfires raged through the popular seaside areas near the Greek capital. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis, FILE)

ATHENS – Lawsuits are piling up against Greece’s ruling Radical Left SYRIZA-led government whose officials have been blamed for failing to respond properly to July 23 wildfires that killed 96 people after a woman who lost her husband, son and daughter filed a criminal suit against seen officials, blaming them for the deaths.

Barbara Voukaki, who lost her husband Grigoris Fytros, 11-year-old son Andreas and 13-year-old daughter Evita accused the officials of intentional homicide and exposure to danger in the deaths of her family.

The lawsuit names Interior Minister Panos Skourletis; Nikos Toskas, who resigned as public order minister several days after the blaze; a local mayor; the regional governor; and the former heads of the fire department, police and civil protection agency.

That came as prosecutors were trying to unwind what was reportedly near-chaotic confusion between fire and police departments and other officials and that police directed traffic into Mati and certain death for many people stuck in cars on narrow streets whose passage to the sea was blocked by unlawful buildings and fences.

Athens Court of First Instance prosecutor Ilias Zagoraios and his deputy in the probe, Varvara Gnesouli, have been busy taking depositions from relatives of victims as the suits mount and reports some officials, including the Mayor of Marathon, which has jurisdiction over Mati, went into hiding during the fire and were nowhere to be seen.

Some of the relatives have hired experts, including former firefighting officials, to conduct private investigations into what happened, as the cause still hasn’t been determined.

There are concerns about another three people who remain in intensive care units in hospitals where 29 burns victims are being cared for.

With nearly 98 percent of the seaside village of Mati said destroyed, where most of the deaths occurred, some 107 families who used to live there as well as nearby Neos Voutzas and whose homes were severely damaged are living in military facilities, Kathimerini said although the fire curiously skipped over some homes next others that were razed to the ground.

The fire swept through a seaside resort northwest of Athens, killing 96 people. Most died of burns, although several drowned after swimming out to sea to escape the heat and smoke. Two of those who died have yet to be identified and have not been sought by relatives.

The Fyrtos family had a holiday home in Mati and on July 23 the father and children were spending time there as Voukaki remained at work in Athens. In her lawsuit, Voukaki said she was in constant contact with her husband as the fire developed, but then lost touch.

The charred bodies of Grigoris and Andreas Fytros were found together in an area near the sea and identified through forensics tests. Evita’s body was found in the sea, after her clothes caught fire and she jumped off a cliff in a desperate attempt to save herself.

“I am certain that their deaths, like the deaths of tens of our fellow citizens, could have been avoided if the state apparatus and its incumbents had operated as the law states,” Voukaki said in her lawsuit.

The action accused officials of a series of oversights and omissions, including failing to clear public areas of flammable material, a lack of coordination among emergency services and a failure to inform residents of a need to evacuate their homes in time as there were no disaster or evacuation plans in place and fire officials were said to have downplayed the danger as the inferno spread like a runaway train from Mt. Penteli, where it’s believed to have begun.

Voukaki’s lawyer, Vassilis Kapernaros, said the lawsuit included elements “that prove … the sharing of responsibility and blame of all those whom we are suing” for the deaths.

The lawsuit will be sent to the Parliament controlled by SYRIZA and its junior coalition partner, the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) who have the vote to block actions they don’t like or which are aimed at them.

Lawsuits involving ministers or sitting Members of Parliament must first be considered by lawmakers, who can decide whether to lift parliamentary immunity from prosecution. Only if immunity is lifted can charges be officially brought but the government can block any attempt to strip its members of protection.

The government has largely blamed illegal construction for the high death toll in the blaze – a practice it has allowed to continue. Experts have pointed to the narrow streets, numerous dead-ends and no clear path to the sea as factors contributing to the deaths.

The government came under intense criticism for its handling of the blaze in the days following the disaster, particularly after it denied mishandling the emergency response. Toskas, the public order minister, had said he had been unable to identify any major mistakes.

Following relentless denunciation from opposition parties, Toskas resigned, followed by senior officials under his supervision.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)