“The Wind Shifted, The Sky Was on Fire”

August 25, 2018

A month after a July 23 tree-top wildfire tore through Mati,1462 degrees propelled by 75 mile-per-hour winds that consumed most the seaside village some 25 miles northeast of Athens, leaving dozens dead – trapped in cars where they were misdirected by police into a dead-end death trap, incinerated or overcome by smoke where they sat, or drowned in the sea into which they jumped to escape the inferno, treading water for hours waiting for help – normal life is not really returning yet.

While investigators and private detectives hired by grieving families of victims probe the debacle of a confused, chaotic response in which there were no disaster or evacuation plans and created such havoc that at least 96 people died – some two dozen were in hospitals being treated for burns – there were, on this warm, sunny Saturday when the village should have been packed with revelers, only a couple of utility company trucks reconnecting electricity, a few police and military patrols and ghoul gawkers driving slowly past a burned-out landscape that looked like the sun had landed and exploded, leaving charred houses, blackened trees and the still-pervasive smell of soot, smoke and death.

“Where’s the house where the 30 people died?” a man asked as he got out his car. People who survived spoke to The National Herald of the apocalypse, fire perhaps 50 feet or higher rampaging faster than a car could get away, pine cones from trees exploding and firing like rocket-propelled grenade launchers into other trees and buildings.

“It sounded like a thunderstorm, on the ground,” said Haris Konstantinides, who survived by staying inside his thick concrete one-story house, reluctant to leave his three dogs and five cats, while his neighbor, a man in his 60’s ran for the sea some 100 yards away and didn’t make it.

“The police showed me his picture. He wasn’t burned, his eyes were open but it didn’t look like him,” he shuddered in remembrance of the death mask, as investigators were looking for a cause – arson is in play in Greece where developers have been accused of burning forest land and sometimes people by the dozens so they can build luxury homes on the ashes, with no law against doing so.

He said he came out of his house late that afternoon to the storm of noise and heat and saw the fireball in the distance, rolling down the hills from the town of Neos Voutzas. “It jumped over the firefighter’s heads. The wind shifted, and the sky was on fire,” he said, a tsunami of flame and fear.

The grim toll is still being counted: an Irish man on his honeymoon, a Polish tourist and her son staying at a hotel getting into a boat to get away but drowning, two nine-year-old twin girls covered by their grandparents on a cliff overlooking the sea, too high to jump, dying too young while their father thought he saw them alive in a video of those escaping.

Authorities said as much as 98 percent of Mati was destroyed and it looks like it, although the fire skipped over some buildings to burn others and a restaurant on a main road almost totally torched untouched.

On this day, when it should have been full, only a few tables were occupied, the smell of pizza not enough to mask the smoke still in the air. Marios Tsakalis, a waiter, who took a video showing the fire coming down the hill so fast people had little time to flee, said the staff and customers ran to the nearby sea and waited for help that didn’t come.

“I called a TV station to tell them what was going on, that there were children in the water who were burned,” he said. The Greek Navy, apart from seven Coast Guard vessels and two ships, wasn’t dispatched. “The Navy didn’t come,” he said. “It was private fishing boats who picked people up.”

Some were clearing out the debris of what was left of homes or summer residences, a convenience store not burned was open, power was being reconnected and a summer cinema was open, a poster outside depicting the movie Kazantzakis, showing the character playing the famed writer with his back to the camera, arms held wide open, looking at the escape of the sea. It could have been Mati.


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