As It Happens

'The worst thing I have ever seen': Journalist describes Greek town decimated by wildfires

A series of wildfires have left 74 dead in Greece. Liana Spyropoulou describes the scene in Mati, the hardest hit town.

At least 74 people have been killed.

A woman in the streets of Mati, near Athens, following the deadly wildfire. (Costas Baltas/Reuters )
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Veteran journalist Liana Spyropoulou said that the Greek town of Mati has been left looking like a war zone after a deadly wildfire.

At least 74 people have been killed as the fire raged through seaside towns near Athens. The fire broke out late Monday afternoon in Mati, where 26 of the dead were found huddled together on a hill. It was still burning in some places on Tuesday.

The fires are the deadliest to hit Greece in decades.

Spyropoulou is a journalist for the German publication Bild. She spoke with As It Happens guest host Laura Lynch about what she saw in Mati.

Here is part of that conversation.

Ms. Spyropoulou,  you've been to the coastal village of Mati today. Can you describe what you saw there?

I saw death. I saw dead people in their backyards. I think more than 500 houses are burned down. 

The first body I saw it the was one of an old lady laying in her backyard next to her wheelchair and her oxygen. 

Then we started moving around the area and I saw dead people in their cars, who tried to escape. But the worst thing was the field where 26 people who died trying to reach the coast in the sea. Most of them were found holding hands or mothers with children in their arms.

I've been a reporter for 20 years. I've been in the big fires in Peloponnese back in 2007. This is the worst thing I have ever seen. 

It was like a war zone. It was like the images you see from Syria after bombings.

An aerial view shows burnt houses following a wildfire in the village of Mati, near Athens, on July 24, 2018. (Savvas Karmaniolas/AFP/Getty Images)

It sounds just so devastating everything you've seen. Why are the fires this week in Greece so devastating compared to other years?  

Because they were near … big villages with many houses and many people who were on vacation.

The houses were full of people. And that's why we have so many victims.

Why was it so difficult for people to escape?

Many people managed to escape. The coast guard, together with ferries and about 30 private boats, they rescued more than 700 people from the sea. From the coast of Mati.

They managed to go there and many of them stayed in the water for like 6 hours.

So we have hundreds of people who managed to escape. Others didn't make it.

They drowned?

Yeah.

Has the response to the fires been enough in your view? In and around Mati there were 600 firefighters, 250 fire engines, water dropping aircraft. Has that been enough?

I think, yes. And the disaster happened because of the wind. The wind was changing directions every 20 or maybe less minutes. So they couldn't do anything.

Rescuers and volunteers help local people evacuate the village of Mati during a wildfire near Athens, on July 23, 2018. (Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images)

You have been interviewing a lot of survivors today, in addition to the terrible things you've seen ... in those worst hit area. Is there a story that is staying with you?

Yesterday night, my best friend who has a house in Mati called me. She lives in London now. She told me that her parents were missing. We managed to find them,1:30 in the morning.

There are more than 100 [people] missing.

I hope their story will end like my friends. It's not only about the dead people, it's not only about the burned houses. It's about the missing people right now.

Imagine their friends and their families now, 24 hours after the fire. They don't know where their beloved ones are. Deep inside they know that there are maybe no possibilities to find them alive.

I can hear the weariness in your voice and also a sense of the devastation in your voice as well. And I'm wondering for everything that you've seen in the last day or so, how are you doing?

I have to tell you that I covered the refugee crisis also in Greece, so after the bodies of the babies I saw in Lesbos, I think I don't have feelings anymore. The refugee crisis has killed my feelings.

Written by Sarah Jackson. Produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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