By George Georgiopoulos and Michele Kambas
ATHENS (Reuters) – The number of dead from a fire which ripped through a Greek coastal town reached at least 81 on Wednesday as frantic relatives tried to track down people missing from the inferno and officials began the grim task of identifying bodies.
Hundreds of people were trapped in the eastern resort of Mati on Monday night as flames whipped around them. Many jumped into the sea to survive but others died from suffocation, either in their cars or trapped on the edge of steep cliffs.
One of the victims was Irishman Brian O’Callaghan-Westrop, Ireland’s ambassador to Athens Orla O’Hanrahan told Ireland’s RTE. The broadcaster said he was on his honeymoon.
He and his wife Zoe, who survived, had got married last week.
The Greek anti-terrorist service was investigating suggestions that the blaze – one of several throughout the Attica region – was started deliberately, a security source said. Arson is often thought to be behind some fires in a crude attempt to clear forest land for building.
The fire brigade said the death in hospital of one person who had initially survived brought the toll up to 81. The service had also received dozens of calls reporting missing people, but it was unclear if some of them were among those already found dead, a spokesperson said.
Some people appeared on television to plead for help.
“I’m looking for my mum,” a young woman told Greece’s SKAI TV between sobs.
The fire broke out on Monday at 4:57 p.m. (1357 GMT), an hour which is observed as a siesta time in rural Greek communities. Mati was popular with local tourists, including pensioners.
Rescue teams combed through the area and the sea on Wednesday trying to locate anything which could offer clarity on the missing, who are thought to number about 40.
“We took our cars and went down to the sea and got into the sea to escape, but there were people who did not make it,” said Mati resident Agni Gantona.
“We got into the water and stayed there for about five hours until the boats came to pick us up. We were at the beach with about 250, 300 people.
“Some were burned, some were near fainting from the smoke and the flames. Groups of us, we were holding each other by the hand and shouting each other’s names, because we could not see from the smoke.”
With most of the corpses badly charred, identification of the dead will be challenging, experts said.
“Work has started on identifying the victims of the wildfires but the majority of the bodies are totally charred,” Grigoris Leon, head of the Hellenic Society of Forensic Medicine, told Reuters.
It was unclear what caused the fire, which spread rapidly through the community. But some suggested that the sheer force of winds, thick pine, fire and panic was a deadly combination making even the most well-executed evacuation plan futile.
“Armaggeddon,” wrote the daily newspaper Ethnos on its front page.
It carried a photo of a burned Greek flag hanging among the branches of a charred tree.
(Additional reporting by Angeliki Koutantou, Alkis Konstantinidis and Vassilis Triantafyllou, Editing by Andrew Bolton)