Athens: Raging wildfires killed 74 people including small children in Greece, devouring homes and forests as terrified residents fled to the sea to escape the flames.
Orange flames engulfed pine forests, turning them to ash and leaving lines of charred cars in the smoke-filled streets of seaside towns near Athens after the fires broke out on Monday.
Rescuers rushed to evacuate residents and tourists stranded on beaches. Others were overtaken by the flames in their homes, on foot or in their cars.
The charred bodies of 26 people, including small children, were discovered in the courtyard of a villa at the seaside resort of Mati, 40km northeast of the capital, said rescuer Vassilis Andriopoulos.
They were huddled together in small groups, “perhaps families, friends or strangers, entwined in a last attempt to protect themselves as they tried to reach the sea”, he said.
“The problem is what is still hidden under the ashes,” said vice president of emergency services Miltiadis Mylonas.
The government said 308 engineers will arrive on site today to assess the damage.
Video footage showed people fleeing by car as the tourist-friendly Attica region declared a state of emergency.
“I saw the fire move down the hill at around 6pm and five or 10 minutes later it was in my garden,” said 60-year-old Athanasia Oktapodi.
Her home is surrounded by dry pine trees.
“They caught fire. I ran out like a crazy person, got to the beach and put my head in the water. Then the patrol boats came.”
The toll was not yet final since firemen were still searching for victims.
Winds of more than 100kmph in Mati caused a “sudden progression of fire” through the village.
“Mati no longer exists,” said the mayor of nearby Rafina, Evangelos Bournous. He added that more than a thousand buildings and 300 cars had been damaged.
A number of roads and evacuation routes were blocked by fire and footage of motorists escaping the area shows them driving through thick smoke.
Survivors described how they were forced into the sea by a blaze that “struck like a flamethrower”.
“The flames were chasing us all the way to the water,” said one victim.
At least six people died trying to escape the flames into the sea.
According to officials, 82 people remained in hospital including 10 adults needing respiratory assistance and almost a dozen children.
Some 715 people were evacuated by boats to Rafina.
Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras cut short a visit to Bosnia to return home. He announced three days of national mourning.
The European Union activated its Civil Protection Mechanism after Greece sought help. Several countries said they were sending aircraft to help fight the flames.