ATHENS – Coast Guard divers recovered a body July 30 near an area of Greece ravaged by a deadly wildfire a week ago the search for more victims focused on the coastline where hundreds of people were forced to flee, and later another body was found in the sea as the death toll rose to at least 92.
Seventy have been identified and 14 remain missing, officials said after days of conflicting reports that at one point said some 174 people hadn’t been accounted for with confusion over how many officials were making lists of the dead and missing.
After sending only seven vessels to help find survivors who tread water in the seas during massive blazes on July 23, the worst in the seaside village of Mati that was 98 percent destroyed, the Coast Guard mobilized its resources to look for more victims.
Coast guard patrol vessels, helicopters and a navy frigate have scoured the southern Euboean Gulf since some people trying to escape fast-moving flames raced to the water after essentially being left on their own by the government, with no warning and no disaster or evacuation plan.
They were joined by Coast Guard special operations forces, which include divers able to reach depths of 120 meters and using underwater scooters to cover greater distances after volunteers including retired Navy SEALS had joined the search efforts.
A research vessel equipped with specialized sonar and a remotely operated underwater vehicle also was deployed.
Fanned by high winds, the blaze gutted seaside resorts where many Athens residents and retirees have holiday homes.
The high death toll has prompted criticism of the government over the absence of access roads, warning systems and other civil protection measures in residential areas surrounded by forest and at high risk of wildfires.
More than a week after the conflagration, the cause still hasn’t been determined with Citizens Protection Minister Nikos Toskas saying all indications pointed to arson, commonly used to burn wooded areas so developers can later build homes, while the fire department’s arson squad said it was started by someone burning materials near Mt. Penteli but refused to identify the person.
More than 500 people gathered outside Greece’s Parliament late on July 39 to attend a candlelight vigil for the victims of the wildfire. “This candle shows our respect to the dead. May God forgive the living,” said George Karakostas, 65, the news agency Reuters reported. The deaths of those trapped in a burning maze, with access to beaches walled off, has shocked the country.
That came after Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras, who’d stayed away, finally went to Mati after withering criticism.
He took only a state broadcaster TV team in a carefully orchestrated visit the major rival New Democracy Conservatives ridiculed as a “publicity stunt” to distract attention from what it said was a debacle over failures to coordinate evacuation, with no plan.
Tsipras, who didn’t allow other reporters to come with him, later tweeted that he met with”citizens, engineers, soldiers, firefighters and volunteers,” but it wasn’t known if they were hand-picked to make him look good for TV.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)