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Society

A Wrong Turn in Mati Meant Death, Residents Want it Rebuilt Right

With the ruling Radical Left SYRIZA-led coalition blamed for not having an evacuation or disaster plan and a chaotic response to the July 23 wildfires that killed 96 people, power was slowly being reconnected to the devastated seaside village of Mati, residents and summer vacationers were trying to recover what was left from charred homes.

One of the makeshift volunteer centers is the Miaou Bar of Pavlos Lakos, on Posidonos Boulevard – which one resident said it was a cruel joke to call the narrow, poorly paved street a boulevard, where dozens of cars were trapped, many dying inside, others trapped by escape routes blocked by unlawfully built homes.

Kaiti Lagonikakou from nearby Rafina has been volunteering “to help our fellow humans. It was black, black, black here – the buildings were black and the spirit of the people was black.”

Young people were armed with resources donated by benefactors. “We bought cleaning substances, food, clothing – because people were literally out in the street. They are living in nearby military camps at Agios Andreas,” but they have nothing, she said.

With the dead buried, including many children, she said, “We are working hard to bring a ray of hope and optimism to this darkness.”

A homeowner who didn’t want to be identified was clearing debris from the house where his family lived – legally – for almost 90 years. It was gutted, but its traditional stone construction means it can be rebuilt.

LUCK AND PLUCK

There are dozens of cases of homes next to each other with divergent fates. The descriptions of that horrific day were apocalyptic, references to “tongues of fire,” “breaths of flames,” and panicked shrieks.

The Mati Hotel survived only after an heroic effort by owners and staff to water down trees and shrubs with hoses.

The owner, Eleni Kardella, said, “We didn’t hear anything – suddenly we saw the flames in front of us…we saw there were fires on the mountain and we didn’t think they would come here, but suddenly they were here.”

The staff reacted swiftly at the beachside resort, guests who could move taken to the sea and the elderly to safety in the dining room.

The hotel never closed its doors. The electricity was knocked out but they brought in generators the next day and new guests are arriving.

Nearby, Haris Konstantinides, grateful the modest one-story home he rents survived, pointed to the devastated two-story building next door and said the blazing current passed above his house – but two-and-three-story houses were blasted. “Look at this tree. The top is scorched but the lower trunk is untouched,” he said.

“It was not a forest fire with flames burning the land, leaping from lot to lot,” not wind-blown burning tree parts spreading the fire, with speculation winds became super-heated as they passed over burning forest, “and they became like a flame throwers from the hills,” he said.

With the town a dead-end death trap, it was worsened when police directed traffic into the area, trapping victims in the narrow maze of streets.

Konstantinides, a counselor for people with disabilities, said he stayed because of his pets he didn’t want to leave.

“I was in the house. I looked out and saw that above the trees there was a huge, red sun, five times larger than usual. And the fire was coming. You heard the wind howling. It has reminded of a bad rainstorm and when that happens, I go into the house and wait for it to pass.”

He said, “Outside I went and in one motion picked up pillows and coverings and I ensconced myself in the house with the pets. I followed my instinct, and stayed away from the havoc in the streets, where I first saw at least 20 cars trying to navigate the chaos and hearing people screaming, ‘Put the children in the cars!’ I knew surely there would have been a jam and people would not be able to escape.” Konstantinides said, “It is a mistake to tell people it’s always best to run. In this kind of fire that is crazy. The key is to find shelter. Better to jump into a hole and cover it than run because when the flames dip to ground level, you are fried.”

He pointed to a burned house on a cliff where 26 people died embracing, including twin nine-year-girls. “There is only one path to the sea and those who were visiting that day didn’t know it,” he said.

At the other end of town there were tales of good and bad luck.

“The first thing we noticed was the strong wind,” said Marios Tsakalis, a waiter at Pizza Ena restaurant. “Tables and chairs were being knocked around. Then we looked at the sky and saw a lot of smoke headed this way – but we were not aware of the danger until we saw the cars fleeing down Marathon Avenue.

He said, “Some people turned right towards Rafina and left for Nea Makri. Those who turned left were survived– most who went to the right died. When I reached the fork in the road a woman in a car told me not to turn right – and I was saved.”

The plan is for all unlawful structures – damaged or not – to be pulled down, and for the area to be rebuilt. Kardella said people will fight to rebuild Mati, but properly. “We are now organizing for that, and demanding the mistakes not be repeated.”

Another citizen, a veteran of failed citizens’ efforts at reform he said were blocked by the owners of unlawful dwellings, is not optimistic. “Most of these homes were thrown up anywhere people wanted between midnight and 5 AM. Greece will never change.”

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