RAFINA: Wildfires raged through seaside resorts near the Greek capital, torching homes, cars and forests and killing at least 50 people, authorities said Tuesday. Twenty-six of the dead were believed to be groups of families or friends who were found huddled together, some of them hugging.
Rescue crews were searching the charred remains of homes and cars in the deadliest of the fires, the one in the Rafina area northeast of Athens, and there were fears the death toll could rise. More than 170 people were treated in hospitals for injuries including burns.
The country's prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, declared three days of national mourning for those killed in the deadliest fire season to hit Greece in more than a decade.
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. A flotilla of boats, including some from the coast guard, evacuated more than 700 people by sea from threatened beaches overnight, authorities said.
"It happened very fast. The fire was in the distance, then sparks from the fire reached us. Then the fire was all around us," said resident Nikos Stavrinidis, who had gone with his wife to fix up his summer home for a visit by his daughter.
Stavrinidis, his wife and four friends swam out into the sea to escape the smoke, but they quickly became disoriented, losing sight of the shore and being swept out further by the wind and currents.
Two of the group didn't survive.
"It is terrible to see the person next to you drowning and not being able to help him," Stavrinidis said, his voice breaking. The remaining survivors were picked up by a fishing boat with an Egyptian crew who jumped into the water to rescue them.
Others never made it to the beach.
The head of Greece's Red Cross, Nikos Oikonomopoulos, told Skai television that a Red Cross rescue team found 26 bodies in a compound northeast of Athens, some of them clutching each other in groups of threes and fours.
"Everything happened in seconds," said Andreaas Passios, who lives next to the compound. "I grabbed a beach towel. It saved my life. I soaked it, grabbed my wife and we ran to the sea."
Passios said he and his wife stayed by the sea for two hours.
"It was unbelievable. Gas canisters were exploding. Burning pine cones were flying everywhere," he said.
When the flames died down, Spyros Hadjiandreou came searching for loved ones.
"My niece and cousin were staying here on holiday. I don't know if they made it out," he said. "I don't know if they are OK. I haven't heard from them."
The death toll stood at 50 by Tuesday morning, government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said.
By early afternoon, the Health Ministry's emergency operations said 71 adults continued to be hospitalized, 10 of them in serious condition. Twenty-three children were also being treated for injuries in hospitals, none of them in serious condition.
The two largest wildfires — one 30 kilometers (20 miles) northeast of Athens near Rafina, the other 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of the capital in Kineta — broke out Monday during hot, dry summer conditions. Fanned by gale-force winds, the flames spread rapidly into seaside towns, moving too fast for many who were in their cars or homes to flee, fire department spokeswoman Stavroula Malliri said.
"The police tried to direct us away from the fire, but we couldn't escape it," said Aleka Papariga, a former Greek Communist Party leader who lives near Rafina. "We got stuck in traffic and the flames were on top of us. We managed to find a small gap and we made it out."
Evangelos Bournous, the mayor of Rafina, blamed the winds.
"We were unlucky," he said. "The wind changed and it came at us with such force that it razed the coastal area in minutes."
Tzanakopoulos said 715 people were evacuated from beaches and the coastline by navy vessels, yachts and fishing boats. The coast guard said 19 people were rescued at sea, some of whom had swum out to escape the flames.
Rafina's dock became a makeshift hospital during the night as paramedics checked survivors, some clad in only their bathing suits, who emerged from coast guard vessels and private boats.
In all, 47 brush and forest fires broke out across Greece on Monday and early Tuesday, with most of them quickly extinguished, the fire department said. Ten were still burning late Tuesday morning, including blazes in Corinth, Crete and in central and northern Greece.
More than 400 firefighters and volunteer firefighters were battling the two fires near Athens, supported by seven water-dropping helicopters and three aircraft.
Greece sought international help through the European Union. Spain was sending two firefighting aircraft while Cyprus was sending in 60 firefighters. Israel and Turkey both also offered assistance.
Heavy rain was forecast across southern Greece on Wednesday, with hopes they could help in the firefighting effort.
Forest fires are common in Greece during the hot, dry summers, and temperatures recently reached up to 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).
In 2007, more than 60 people were killed when huge fires swept across the southern Peloponnese region.