A policeman walks in front of a morgue in Athens, Thursday, July 26, 2018. Relatives searching for loved ones missing in Greece's deadliest forest fire in decades headed to Athens' morgue Thursday, as rescue crews and volunteers continued searches on land and at sea for potential further victims. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Frantic relatives search for missing in Athens' morgue

July 26, 2018 - 5:00 am

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Frantic relatives headed to Athens' morgue Thursday, searching for loved ones missing in Greece's deadliest forest fire in decades as rescue crews and volunteers continued the hunt on land and at sea for potential victims.

The death toll inched up, with the fire department announcing the number of dead at 82. Many of the bodies were burnt beyond recognition, making identification difficult.

Those arriving at the morgue were being informed of the necessary steps to match the missing and the dead, including providing DNA samples and dental records. Police said a team specializing in the identification of disaster victims had been activated following a request from the fire department.

"The procedure is difficult, harder than that of other mass disasters which we have dealt with in the past as a forensics department," said coroner Nikolaos Kalogrias. "Here the main cause of death was burning, in most cases the complete burning (of the body) so identification is very difficult."

The fire northeast of Athens in the area of Rafina, a seaside resort of permanent residences and holiday homes popular with Athenians and tourists, broke out Monday and raced through the area, fanned by gale-force winds.

The identification procedure was further complicated by the fact that the fire was across a large area and there was no way of knowing how many people had been in the area at the time. By Thursday afternoon, there was still no official number of missing.

Thanassis Moraitis arrived at the morgue searching for his 90-year-old mother.

He had tried to drive away in a car with his mother, wife and 19-year-old son, but the fire was too fast and they had to abandon the car and run to the beach and into the water. He suffered burns to his leg from the heat of the air. His mother didn't make it.

"In the sea there was a rain of fire, there was smoke, there was a Force 12 wind," said the 53-year-old, adding that boats picked the family up after about three hours.

"I didn't even get a chance to say goodbye to my mother," Moraitis said.

Fire department spokeswoman Stavroula Malliri said the search for further potential victims continued. Rescue crews had not been able to enter homes that had not been destroyed and were shut, she said, adding that the search would not end until every building in the area had been thoroughly investigated.

Apart from the house-to-house searches, coast guard and volunteer divers were also searching the waters off the coast of the worst affected areas and a nearby deserted island.

During the fire, hundreds fled to nearby beaches, with many swimming out to sea to escape the ferocious flames and choking smoke. Dozens spent hours at sea before being picked up by coast guard vessels, fishing boats and a passing ferry. Several of the dead were people who drowned.

The worse affected area was the seaside community of Mati, where the majority of victims were found, including 26 people found huddled together, many embracing.

Arriving at the morgue with her son, Maria Saridou was hoping her 55-year old sister, Eleni, was not among the victims. She had gone swimming with a friend of hers in Mati, Saridou said, but the two became separated in the chaos of the fire. She hadn't heard from her since.

"We found her car, it wasn't burnt, nor was the house," said 60-year-old Saridou. "It's just that we can't find her. ... I believe she's alive. Where she went, nobody knows where she went."

Hundreds of homes were burnt. The speed with which the flames spread took many by surprise. The narrow streets of Mati, an area built up with no town planning, quickly became clogged with parked and abandoned cars as people tried to flee, hampering access by firefighting trucks and blocking escape routes.

One Belgian national and one Irish national were among those confirmed dead.

Some of the casualties are believed to have tried to make it to the shore through narrow pathways, but lost their way in the thick smoke or had their paths blocked by the swift-moving blaze. Even those on beaches were not safe, as flames burned trees and vegetation at the water's edge, while flaming pine cones rained downward, survivors have said.

Recriminations about the apparent lack of an evacuation plan and what many perceived to have been a slow response has mounted, with survivors saying they had been abandoned to do whatever they could to save themselves alone.

Firefighting and rescue efforts, particularly from the air and the sea, were hampered by gale force winds and rough seas. When the Rafina fire broke out, crews were also engaged in fighting a massive fire west of Athens that had broken out hours earlier and also burnt homes.

But survivors have accused authorities of failing to adequately prepare and for not evacuating the area, as well as not responding fast enough.

Defense Minister Panos Kammenos visited Mati Thursday morning and was heckled by distraught men and women, who accused authorities of not doing enough in the initial hours of the fire.

"People died for nothing!" one woman sobbed at the minister.

Local resident Giannis Kardiakos, who said he stayed in the area until midnight, said efforts to tackle the blaze and to rescue those who had fled to the beaches started too late.

"There was no protection, there was nothing! ... I'm saying things as they were," he said, as Kammenos detailed what the military and firefighters had been doing to battle the fire. "I'm not lying. We're not talking politically here," he added, before breaking down in tears.

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Thanassis Stavrakis in Mati, Greece, and Menelaos Hadjicostis in Athens contributed to this report.

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