The death toll from forest fires that raged through seaside resorts near the Greek capital had increased to 74 last night.
Fire service spokeswoman Stavroula Malliri said that a further 164 adults and 23 children were being treated in hospitals for injuries after the fires broke out near Athens. One of the fires began to the west of Athens near the town of Kineta, with another starting to the north-east near the port of Rafina – the latter seeing the worst of the casualties. Both fires were fanned by gale-force winds that hampered firefighting efforts and saw hundreds of people flee to beaches, where they were evacuated by boat late at night.
Twenty-six of the dead were groups of families or friends found huddled together and hugging in Mati, near Rafina. Others swam out to sea to escape the inferno and some never came back.
A spokesperson for the Foreign Office said: “Our thoughts are with all those affected by the wildfires in Greece. We are in contact with the Greek emergency services responding to the fires, and will do all we can to assist any British people who require help.”
Greece endures wildfires every year, but the fires that broke out on Monday were the deadliest to hit the country in decades. Prime minister Alexis Tsipras yesterday declared three days of national mourning.
Coast guard boats patrolled the shores near fire-hit areas after more than 700 people trapped by quick-moving fires had to be rescued from beaches or the sea, where six of the dead were found.
While authorities urged the public to contact them if they were looking for loved ones, many people took to social media, posting pictures of those they were looking for and their last known location.
Of the injured adults, 71 remained in hospital last night, with ten of them said to be in serious condition, while 11 of the children also remain in hospital.
Twenty-six of the dead were found at first light yesterday, huddled together in one holiday compound near the sea in the community of Mati, near the port of Rafina. Red Cross rescuers said they appeared to be families or friends, as they were found hugging in groups of three and four.
Although the fires had largely abated by yesterday afternoon, they were far from out.
Firefighters, aided by aircraft dropping water, were tackling the remaining areas in the two main blazes near the capital.
Fires continued to burn in other parts of the country too, with one on the island of Crete the most severe.
With the flames whipped up by gale-force winds that frequently changed direction, many tourists and residents fled toward the coastline. Some swam out to sea, braving rough water and strong currents to escape the ferocious flames and choking smoke.
The speed of the fire’s advance took many by surprise. Dimitri Piros, director of medical services for Ekav, Greece’s nationwide ambulance service, said: “The blaze struck like a flamethrower.”
Coast guard and private boats evacuated more than 700 people from threatened beaches overnight, authorities said. Defence minister Panos Kammenos said 88 people had been picked up from the sea by a military vessel.
Evangelos Bournous, the mayor of Rafina, blamed the high winds for the tragedy. “We were unlucky,” he said. “The wind changed and it came at us with such force that it razed the coastal area in minutes.”
Rafina’s dock became a makeshift hospital during the night as paramedics checked survivors who emerged from coast guard vessels and private boats.
Heavy rain is forecast across southern Greece today, which it is hoped will help the firefighting effort.