Letter from Athens: There Are Some Real Unsung Heroes of the Deadly Mati Fire

February 5, 2023

While then-Premier Alexis Tsipras, whose government didn’t have a disaster or evacuation plan in place, nor implemented early warnings on cell phones, was running around clueless and looking for someone to blame for the wildfires raging outside Athens in July, 2018, the heroes were there.

They were in the seaside village of Mati where people were cooked alive in their cars on narrow roads where police who had no instructions mistakenly directed them into the path of flames that devoured them.

The conflagration took the lives of 104 people, including 26 huddled on a cliff overlooking the sea below that they likely couldn’t see or reach because of the smoke and heat. They included grandparents covering 9-year-old twin girls grandchildren.

Predictably, Tsipras, leader of the Radical Left SYRIZA that’s now changed its name, shamelessly said he took only “political responsibility” for the horror and hasn’t since shown any sense of guilt for the real responsibility of his government’s failures killing 104 people, most of them in the village that horrid day.

He was run out of office a year later in July, 2019 snap polls by the now-ruling New Democracy, but is running again, itching again to get back in power and if he does, everyone in Greece will be at risk.

He didn’t direct Greece’s nearby Coast Guard or Naval fleet to go to the scene to pick up people standing in the sea for hours waiting for help, nor did the fire service properly send firefighting aircraft.

That left it to firefighters who were there, including volunteers, to try to rescue people because it was impossible to stop flames firing across treetops like runaway molten lava, burning and killing everything in its path.

One of the victims was Brian O’Callaghan-Westropp who was there with his wife of four days, Zoe Holohan, the Irish couple on their honeymoon and caught up in the searing inferno.

She said her husband saved four children as everyone tried to run from the rampaging flames and that they jumped into a passing car. But there wasn’t enough room so he got into the trunk, only to fall out into the flames when a burning tree branch fell on the car.

She was saved by a real hero – there aren’t any in government offices where they cower and create cover stories for their blame – so it was left to volunteer firefighter Manos Tsaliagos, who jumped through a wall of fire to rescue her.

She was lucky, if you can use that word, that she not only survived but was taken to a hospital where she was treated for severe burns by another hero whose name wasn’t known then but should be now.

That’s a plastic surgeon, Dr. Georgis Moutoglis. “He was the one who saved my life, my hand, my legs and who put my face back together. He is an absolute angel and the person I relied on to keep me alive,” she told the Irish news site Independent.ie.

She said that every night, no matter how tired he was after his shift at the hospital, Moutoglis would come into her room to check if she was asleep, she said, adding: “I wouldn’t sleep until I saw him. You become childlike when you’re in that situation. He is an intensely kind man and I’ve kept in touch with him.”

She hopes to see him and Tsaliagos again as she will return to Greece – for a second time since the fire – to testify again in the cases against the public officials charged with negligence, almost five years after the fact.

“I want to tell the truth as it happened on that horrific day,” she said, even though few in Greece want to hear it anymore and the names of the victims, almost none of them making the news, have already been forgotten.

They were incinerated or choked to death on smoke, and no one will ever know the fear they felt, especially those on the cliff side, waiting for their end while Tsipras and his officials were plotting their excuses.

For this tragedy alone he should be disqualified, and Holohan said she can’t speak about the politics, “but there are a lot of people who are very angry because lives have been taken, there have been life-changing injuries, homes have been destroyed and livelihoods – everything was nuked.”

Some families hired private investigators to reveal the truth because otherwise it would be covered up to protect politicians and fire officials and anyone else who has ashes on their hands over this, starting with Tsipras.

Don’t look for justice because there isn’t any in Greece, and if anyone’s convicted over this – the odds are six, two, and even – they either won’t go to jail, will be free on appeal, or if they are imprisoned will be out faster than you can say wildfire.

Also being tried is a 65-year-old man accused of beginning the wildfires when he was burning materials in his backyard on a windy day but he hasn’t been named – for privacy reasons.

Holohan said that she relives the tragedy every night and has constant nightmares about scenes that can’t be forgotten and that she is “filled with dread” about testifying. Tsipras won’t be there, just like he wasn’t at Mati.


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