First of all, I need to apologize if this post ends up being a bit of a downer. I always strive to keep my blog positive, as you know. Not today.
Originally, I wanted to write today about yesterday’s celebration of the Dormition of the Virgin, the third greatest celebration in Greece (and the Greek Orthodox tradition), after Easter and Christmas. Although nominally a religious holiday, it is celebrated in the same manner as Easter, with family gatherings, public festivals, and loads of lamb eating. Many go to the beach for a quick swim first, as August is usually the hottest month. Since no one works, it’s perfect for relaxing, and most people will be on vacation this week.
You can read all about it in my last year’s post on the subject, August 15 in Greece: Dormition of the Virgin.
Instead of enjoying the holiday, I find myself this year still coping with the aftermath of the deadly fires in Mati, barely a 40-minute drive from my place. We now have 94 confirmed dead–drowned while trying to escape the flames or burned alive. And over 3,000 houses were damaged or destroyed by the fire.
My family used to holiday there back in the 80s. I spent many a summer playing with Agnes and other friends. Agnes has grown up to be a wonderful woman, who married Vaggelis, a lovely man who’s now the mayor of the nearby port of Rafina. So this is all a bit too close to home for me.
Even though Mati is not part of Rafina, a lot of people owe their lives to Agnes’ husband, who spent every minute of that terrible day–and every day since–helping out wherever he could, not resting for a minute.
Instead of gratitude, the government has been busy trying to shed any responsibility and spread the lie that Vaggelis knew about the fire since 2 pm (before the fire even started) and that he only notified his family.
Agnes lost everything; her house was burned down, as were her cars. She spent 5 hours swimming with her two children and elderly parents. Her best friend and business partner, Elena, was also with them, as was Elena’s father. They all survived except for Elena’s father, who suffered a heart attack and drowned after 3 hours in the water.
When I spoke to Agnes, I expected her to be sad. Instead, she was furious at the accusations against her husband. She had no warning, obviously (as she would have secured her possessions and fled instead of letting the fire destroy everything and threaten her family).
The lies only stopped because his house was burned down (see photo), therefore the liers realized they couldn’t accuse Vaggelis of looking after himself first.
The new narrative: blame the victims
When that lie failing to catch on, the government’s story changed. The official narrative became that it’s the residents’ fault for building in a forest area. And it’s a lie that has found its way into all major media outlets worldwide.
The image above is of Mati before the fire. Hardly a few stray houses in the middle of a forest, as the government claims. And the government narrative fails to mention that this area has been built since the 60s. All the houses you see above had permits and were legally built.
Furthermore, fires are a constant threat in Greece. They burn almost annually but never were so many lives claimed or an entire village destroyed, as the fire department easily put them out.
So, what did really happen?
A number of factors conspired to make this the deadliest fire I can remember.
First of all, no one ordered an evacuation. People had closed doors and windows because of the smoke and were staying inside. With no power, due to the fire cutting the power lines, they had no way of knowing when to leave. A friend of mine only realized the fire was already burning down his garden when he went out to manually open the garage door in case he and his family needed to leave in a hurry.
The fire department underestimated the winds and had sent every single one of their fire trucks to another fire in Western Attica. By the time they realized how big this one was getting, it was too late; it was raging out of control.
There should have been reserve firetrucks patrolling Mati, as they did every year. In fact, the residents’ association had bought and donated to the Marathon Municipality a number of such trucks, to be used in case of emergency. Unlike other years, this year they were nowhere to be seen. The residents’ association had sent–long before the fires–repeated letters to the Mayor of Marathon, Mr. Psinakis (a former TV celebrity)–the same one who failed to order an evacuation. They received no response; no one knows where the firetrucks are or why they weren’t patrolling this summer.
The main reason so many people died is that the police then closed down the main street, Marathonos Avenue, thus trapping thousands of people who were trying to evacuate. These were forced to take side streets in order to escape the flames.
However, no one thought of shutting down the nearby port of Rafina and redirecting boats to Piraeus. As a result, boats spilling with thousands of cars arrived from the islands, hindering the evacuation by swarming the narrow streets.
Most of the dead were the direct result of these two terrible mistakes: unable to escape by car, the fire caught up with people as they were trying to flee on foot. The photo shows one of the side streets, the cars still trapped in an endless queue that will never go anywhere.
Some people jumped off cliffs and into the sea. A few died as a result. Many others, however, drowned, as they had to swim for hours. People were already in the waters for 3 hours before anyone thought of alerting the coast guard to pick them up. Even then, the coast guard sent a ship that was too big for that particular area. All they did was ask fishermen boats to save people. They didn’t even consider using their floodlights to help with the rescue.
The Navy was never even asked to help out, despite the fact they have everything they need to perform Search and Rescue operations, from helicopters to speedboats. And yet, the next day the minister of defense made a rather imperial appearance in Mati, to accuse the survivors of being responsible for the loss of life because they had built their houses there. And another minister accused them of not swimming far enough, to escape the flames, therefore it was their lack of training (sic) that was to blame for their deaths.
A shambolic aftermath
The whole thing has been a shambles from the go. The government has claimed from the start it was all unavoidable and that nothing could be done to save those people. Even worse, they then tried to shift all blame on the victims, as if they hadn’t suffered enough.
The only people fired so far were the chief of police and the chief of the fire department, while a Deputy Minister resigned (his boss refused to, arguing he did nothing wrong). The mayor of Marathon has steadfastly refused to resign, as have any other government members.
Instead of resignations, the government has set up a committee, tasked to attribute responsibility for the disaster. They even asked a German professor to head it, supposedly to ensure its impartiality. However, this professor has appeared on every major TV channel and all over the Internet to explain that nothing could have been done differently and that the government is in no way responsible. A conclusion that might be better accepted, had the committee held even a single meeting to present him with the available information.
The government’s level of incompetence is only matched by its level of cruelty. Elena doesn’t deserve any compensation for her dead father, they said, because he was old and had a frail heart, therefore he might have died of a heart attack anyway. They needed proof that the fact he had been swimming for 3 hours was responsible for his heart failing.
Again, I apologize for the ranting post. But right now, after talking to friends from the UK who said that the story they hear is one of people who stupidly moved into the forest and got punished by the fire for their greed, I felt I had no choice but to tell people their story as I heard it, first-hand.
Normal service to resume shortly (after all, A Heaven for Toasters was released on Monday).