Dozens of firefighters were battling the flames aided by helicopters and planes dropping water. Image Credit: AFP

MATI, Greece: They nearly reached the water.

As wind-fuelled wildfires that killed at least 76 people in vacation areas outside Athens bore down on their seaside resort, 26 men, women and children gathered in the hope that they could find the narrow path leading to a small staircase down to the water.

The gated entrance stood only a dozen paces away, but with smoke blotting their vision and choking their lungs, they appear to have lost their way. Officials found their bodies the next day, Tuesday; several were still clinging to one another.

At sundown, an eyeglass case, a belt buckle, the carcasses of dogs and the shells of cellphones dotted the still-smouldering field where they fell. Amid the burnt pine cones and the naked trees, leaning as if slammed by a nuclear wind, lay a large leather sandal and a small blue one with a Velcro strap.

All around were the discarded blue rubber gloves of the emergency workers who carried the bodies away.

Rescuers carry an injured woman during a wildfire in Mati, east of Athens. AP

Greece, a country that understands tragedy all too well, woke Tuesday morning to its worst one in a decade. In addition to those killed by smoke or fire, or who drowned in the sea while trying to flee, 187 people were hospitalised, more than 20 of them children. Ten people remained in serious condition, the government said Tuesday night.

The fires forced the evacuation of thousands of tourists, as well as residents and retirees, from this vacation area about 20 miles east of Athens. Flames were still licking at the fields of Kineta, about 30 miles west.

“We will do whatever is humanly possible to control it,” Greece’s prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, said in a televised statement on Tuesday as he announced a state of emergency in the Attica region, which includes Athens.

The government, which has declared three days of mourning, dispatched forces from the army, coast guard and fire brigades. It has also called in help from the European Union to quell the fires.

BA rescue team searches inside a destroyed building. At least six people died trying to escape the flames into the sea. Reuters

“We mustn’t let mourning overwhelm us, because these hours are hours of battle, unity, courage and above all solidarity,” Tsipras said.

The acrid smell, wafts of smoke and pools of incinerated garbage lent this seaside community an apocalyptic air on Tuesday. The streets were slicked black and police lights reflected off the broken windows as tow truck operators raised and lowered the ashen remains of burnt cars onto flatbed trucks.

Elena Apostolov, a pet store owner, walked around with an empty pet carrier. “We’ve found nothing,” she said.

Danae Koliou, 23, sidestepped dead bodies in the morning and picked up an abandoned cellphone with 48 missed calls.

Firefighters wore gas masks and rescue workers collected bags of crackers, Argos orange juice, bread and Choco Balls cereal for the hungry survivors, many of whom had lost everything.

“Everything is bad,” said George Roumeliotis, the president of the local civil protection task force. He paused to yell over to colleagues in orange shirts to start bringing food to other sites. “We have dead,” he said, “we have people looking for their friends and their family.”

The seemingly arbitrary blowing of the winds left some houses and bougainvillea bushes relatively untouched by fire and others reduced to nothing but cinders. One family hovered on a relatively untouched balcony near the sea. A few feet away, there was nothing left.

Residents said the flames had come fast.

“There was a smell of smoke, but just the smell,” said Antonis Tsiongios, a 60-year-old plumber who had a vacation property here. “And then two hours later, the fire was here.”

By then, he said, it was too late to escape. The street out of town was clogged with cars and engulfed in flames.

“The only road,” he said, “was the sea.”

Tsiongios pointed at a narrow pass, beyond a slumped cactus plant, where he said more than 100 people had struggled to get to the rocky beach below. He made it out, he said, and waded in the water until the fires were extinguished. But a friend’s elderly mother did not make it, he said, and is missing.

Some people swam out hoping that boats would come to their rescue. Some were plucked from the sea by fishermen, while others clung to makeshift rafts before the coast guard arrived.

Twelve coast guard vessels, aided by private boats, rescued dozens of people from the sea and helped evacuate about 800 people trapped on the beaches of Mati and nearby Kokkino Limanaki, officials said.

But the sea, too, took its toll. Some residents swam to safety, only to see their neighbours drown. Others trod water for hours, their eyes burning from smoke, until fisherman pulled them aboard.

The death toll, Greece’s worst since wildfires killed 60 people in the country’s Peloponnese region in 2007, seemed likely to grow as the authorities began the grim task of inspecting the torched cars and wrecked homes in which some evacuees sought escape or refuge, only to find themselves trapped.

Evangelos Bournous, the mayor of the Rafina-Pikermi area, told reporters he had seen flames engulf more than 100 homes. “It is a total catastrophe,” he said.

Politicians here have already started casting blame and whispering about arson. A Supreme Court prosecutor ordered an investigation and Tsipras said the extent of the fires seemed suspicious. Sceptics brought up the lack of funds for forest maintenance and the disregard for zoning laws.

But on Tuesday, as the winds died down and billowing clouds replaced thick smoke, all of that seemed far off.

Instead, what was left was the awful evidence of a beach vacation that ended in unimaginable tragedy. What was left was a house — outside which 26 vacationers died together — that still emanated the heat of the fatal fire. What was left was a burnt watermelon and four singed racquetball paddles on the patio.

— New York Times News Service