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Greek Police Tapes Show Alarm, Confusion Over Fires Response

August 2, 2018

ATHENS – With the Radical Left SYRIZA-led coalition continuing to insist there were no operational failures that led to the deaths of at least 98 people in the July 23 fires that swept seaside areas, the village of Mati the hardest, police radio conversations revealed a high state of anxiety and uncertainty over what to do.

With the raging fire heading toward the town – with the residents given no warning and no disaster or evacuation plan in place, the police chief for northeastern Attica, Constantinos Voutselas, told Traffic Police chief Argyris Bakalonis, to suspend traffic on Marathonas Avenue, the newspaper Kathimerini said it had heard on the tapes.

That led to police directing traffic into the village and into the path of the fire with residents saying many burned alive in their cars because of the chaos, and with word-of-mouth the only real alarm they had to flee in their vehicles or into the sea.

Only 23 minutes after the traffic diversion order, Bakalonis can be heard asking if a police patrol car is trapped and is reassured that there is not a problem.

Political parties, the fire department, forest rangers, police, Coast Guard, and other agencies supposed to be involved in protecting citizens kept blaming each other as coroners were identifying the charred remains of the victims of confusion and the fire.

Attica regional adviser Ioanna Tsoupra blamed the fire service for not properly organizing an evacuation of the stricken areas while Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his junior coalition partner, Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, leader of the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) were defending the government’s response.

Greece’s union of forest rangers said firefighters should have been able to contain the blaze when it began on Mt. Penteli. No cause has been determined as Citizens Protection Minister Nikos Toskas said all signs pointed to arson, while the arson squad said someone burning material on the mountain – they know who it is but won’t reveal the name – accidentally started what turned into an epic inferno that was the worst in Greek history and in Europe since 1900.

People in Mati were trapped in narrow, dead-end streets where unlawful construction allowed by the government so it could fine homeowners to bring money into state coffers blocked their escape routes in thick, blinding smoke and temperatures as high as 1,462 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Responsibilities (for the fire) will be attributed by judicial authorities. However, we cannot overlook the operational responsibilities that exist, which we believe will be attributed since, in our view, stemming from years of experience … we believe that the battle was lost on Pendeli, before it reached Neos Voutzas,” the firefighters union said.

The Hellenic Fire Service’s arson department (DAEE), said after the fire began on Mt. Penteli – burned in another deadly fire in 2007 amid speculation fires are set so developers can put luxury homes on the land later – it was whipped by winds toward Mati and the unknowing residents.
It also tore through the town of Neos Voutzas on its way toward what turned Mati into a death trap.

THE REASONS WHY

The University of Athens’ geology and geo-environment department, in a preliminary enquiry, said there 15 main reasons why the blaze went out of control so fast and why it was so deadly in such a relatively small area.

The report includes available scientific data and the initial conclusions were drawn by researchers affiliated with the university’s environmental, disaster, and crisis management strategies post-graduate program.

They included concepts such as ” wildland urban interface” and “downslope spread”, while citing a  haphazard layout of narrow roads, alleys leading to dead-ends, residences and other town planning features with vast unlawful construction, the business newspaper Naftemporik said, typical of holiday towns along the coast where people grab state land and build without permits or consequences.

Other reasons cited for the high death toll were cheap building materials, gale winds, a coastline of cliffs preventing people from jumping into the sea in many places, traffic jams as people tried to flee in their vehicles, and a dense pine forest which was tinder dry and with the fire department not on alert in those conditions.

With suits from survivors and families of victims already being brought, the government submitted an amendment to Parliament providing financial relief of 5,900 euros ($6,859) to repair damaged homes although nearly 98 percent of Mati was essentially destroyed.

People who suffered permanent physical injury will get 4,400 euros ($5,115) and the disabled or those with large families will get 600 euros ($697.53).

The major opposition New Democracy called on Justice Minister Stavros Kontonis to broaden an investigation into the failings that led to the fires, as party leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis said if elected he would improve the country’s firefighting capacities so that such a national tragedy is “never repeated.”

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