Greece has declared a state of emergency after multiple wildfires burned out of control on either side of Athens. The fires reportedly just burst out in the forests near the seaside towns outside the Greek capital, prompting thousands of people to flee for their lives. Many jumped into the sea for survival to escape the flames. According to the Greek media, several of the dead
The wildfires have left Greece with a devastating aftermath, as the death toll has climbed to 91 people, with nearly 200 injured, and many are in critical condition. Twenty more are missing. Relatives and friends of the missing are constantly being uploaded online. One of the most publicized cases of missing people involved the nine-year-old twins, Sofia and Vasiliki Philipopoulou. After a few days passed, their distraught father thought he saw them on television, but it turned out to have been a false hope. Ultimately they were located, burned to death while hugging their grandparents. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed or seriously damaged including an Orthodox orphanage. “Forty-five kids were forced to evacuate before the flames engulfed the premises of the foundation. They are temporarily housed in other children’s institutions in the area,” reported the news website, the Greek Reporter. “Frantic relatives headed to the Athens morgue to seek the fate of loved ones still missing. Many of the bodies were burned beyond recognition,” reported the newspaper Kathimerini.
“The procedure is difficult, harder than that of other mass disasters which we have dealt with in the past as a forensics department,” coroner Nikolaos Kalogrias said. “Here, the main cause of death was burning, in most cases the complete burning [of the body], so identification is very difficult.” The cause of the fires remains unknown. Greek officials are now investigating whether arsonists started the blazes. “Fifteen fires were started simultaneously on three different fronts in Athens,” government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said. According to Kathimerini, Greek Public Order Minister Nikos Toskas also cited arson, saying that “satellite image analysis and ground inspections provided ‘serious indications’ the fire that broke out in multiple places within a short time frame was set deliberately.” “Before Toskas’s news conference, the mayor of the area where it [the fire] broke out said it might have been sparks from a severed electricity pylon cable.”
The Greek Reporter related heart-wrenching stories from the tragedy. One of the victims, Thanasis Moraitis, “on vacation with his mother, wife and child in Mati, faced a terrible dilemma: To save his 90-year-old mother or the rest of his family? Sobbing as he went to give a DNA sample so the remains of his mother could be identified, Moraitis described how he had to leave his mother behind in the car as she could not walk easily. “He said that the flames were fast approaching the car. He grabbed his wife and child and ran to the sea. He turned back and watched for the last time as his mother engulfed in flames. ‘I did not even have the time to shout a last goodbye,’ he said. The family spent hours in the water before they were rescued.”
The incident marks Greece’s worst fire disaster since 2007 and has already become one of the deadliest fires Europe has seen this century, an AFP report says. If it is terrorism, the culprits have not yet been named. Although Islamic State (ISIS) has not claimed credit for arson, it has called for the setting of fires in the West. In an article titled “Just Terror Tactics” in the January 6, 2017 issue of ISIS monthly print publication, Rumiyah, ISIS called for its followers to use arson to spread fear. “This is a quick option for anyone intending to join the just terror campaign,” they wrote. ISIS also cited the November 22-27, 2016 fires in Israel as “an example of the effective use of fire for terrorism,” The Jerusalem Post reported. “The whole world witnessed the devastating fires that ravaged Jewish settlements in Palestine, destroying around 700 Jewish homes,” boasted the terror organization, adding that through arson, operatives can “impose terror on an entire country.” In the meanwhile, Tzanakopoulos said that the Greek government has requested drones from the United States to “detect any suspicious activity.”
It is unclear whether we will ever know the truth about how and by whom the fires got ignited. But whatever the cause of the fires is –arson, terrorism or negligence combined with weather conditions − what the survivors now urgently need is help and support. Nonprofit organizations and crowd-sourcing campaigns, such as the Hellenic Initiative, the American Hellenic Council and the Hellenic American Leadership Council, have launched emergency fundraisers in response to the tragedy. The American Jewish Committee has also announced that it is “supporting the relief efforts to help Greece.” The American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA) has launched the Greece Wildfire Relief Fund, in which they appeal for online donations here. The Greek Wildfire Victims campaign is collecting donations directly for the Hellenic Red Cross and Anima, a wildlife protection organization in Greece. And nonprofit foundation Desmos, which collects goods on the ground in Athens, has appealed for donations through their website and the Greece Wildfire Relief campaign. The lethal fires have left thousands of Greeks completely devastated. Now is the time to help.
About the author: Uzay Bulut, a journalist from Turkey, She is currently based in Washington D.C.