ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Funerals for victims of Greece’s lethal wildfire began Saturday, with the burial of an elderly priest who drowned as he sought safety from the flames in the sea off the Mati coastal resort.
Meanwhile, Greece’s public order minister continued to defend authorities’ response to Monday’s blaze that claimed the lives of at least 88 individuals, saying that there was no way to evacuate so many people in the short span it took the flames to sweep through the area.
Hundreds attended Father Spyridon Papapostolou’s funeral in his parish of Halandri, a northern suburb of the Greek capital.
Papapostolou, his wife and daughter were among hundreds who entered the water to protect themselves from the fast-moving flames. But the 83-year-old cleric passed out and drowned. His wife and daughter survived.
“Father Spyridon was certainly ready for this trip, but not in this way, he didn’t deserve it,” the cleric’s niece Ifigenia Christodoulou told the Associated Press. “I hope that he prays for all us from up there, just as he has done all these years. He met a horrible end.”
Dimitra Bavavea directed her anger at the “unjust” way that so many people had lost their life.
“My sorrow is great as is my rage for those who left people to burn to death so unjustly,” she said. “I hope that those who died are in heaven and I thank you Father Spyridon for all that you have offered us.”
In more sad news, the bodies of twin girls who their father initially believed had survived the fire have been identified, private investigator George Tsoukalis told the Associated Press.
Tsoukalis said the nine year-old Sophia and Vasiliki Philipopoulos were found in the arms of their grandparents who also perished in the fire.
A day after the fire, Yiannis Philipopoulos issued a public appeal to locate his missing daughters after saying that he had spotted them alive in TV news footage among a group of people getting off a fishing boat that had rescued them.
Coroner Nikolaos Kalogrias told the Associated Press that identification of remains continues at a steady pace. Greek authorities haven’t given an account of exactly how many people are still missing.
Public Order Minister Nikos Toskas told state broadcaster ERT it was impossible to evacuate the area’s 15,000 people in the 90 minutes that Monday’s blaze lasted.
Toskas said fire crews did all they could to save as many lives as possible, but that town planning errors accumulated over 60 years in the area created conditions that made it difficult for fire crews to do their job.
Toskas said over half of buildings in the Mati area, 30 kilometers (19 miles) east of Athens, were constructed without permits, while beaches were fenced off, obstructing people fleeing the flames from reaching the water.
The official said the government’s priority now is to take those measures so that something like this never happens again.
By COSTAS KANTOURIS and MENELAOS HADJICOSTIS