TERRADES, Spain – As a wildfire closed in on them, five members of a vacationing French family abandoned their car and stumbled through thick smoke down a steep hillside in a desperate bid to reach the waters of the Mediterranean. Instead of a beach, they found themselves at the edge of a cliff with no choice but to jump or try to climb down. Two plummeted to their deaths.
The deaths of the father and daughter off the 20-meter (65-foot) high cliff were among the most tragic tales from Spain as it battles blazes during one of its driest summers in decades. The fire involved was likely sparked by someone throwing a lit cigarette out of a car along a small road inundated by vehicles heading to France, police said.
The deaths occurred Sunday night in Portbou, a Spanish town just five kilometers (three miles) from the French border. Because wildfires elsewhere had forced the closure of the main highway linking Spain to France, traffic was diverted to the smaller road via Portbou.
The tossed cigarette apparently started a fire on the pavement which quickly spread to woods along the road before the cars could escape and officials could shut the thoroughfare, Deputy Mayor Elisabet Cortaba said Monday. Around 150 people were soon running from their vehicles and down into the rocky terrain toward the beach.
The deadly northern regional wind phenomenon called "Tramontana" led to intense gusts in the heavily forested area, spreading the blaze quickly. During all this, the family of five became separated from the rest of the group on the way down and found itself at the edge of the cliff as the fire closed in, Cortaba said.
The mother tried to scale down the crumbly cliff-face, but lost her grip and fell, said Tony Buixeda, the town's port manager, who was at the scene in a boat. One daughter told rescuers that she jumped, but Buixeda said he did not know if the others jumped or fell because he was already swimming toward the mother.
Some witnesses "said they threw themselves off, others said they fell," Buixeda said. "The only thing they could do was go to the water."
The 60-year-old father died instantly when he hit submerged rocks, and his 15-year-old daughter drowned, Cortaba said.
The mother was in a critical condition Monday with a back injury, and the son and other daughter were pulled from the water without suffering life-threatening injuries. Their identities were not released, said Cortaba, who knew only that they had been vacationing in Spain and were on their way home.
Two other French also died in the weekend fires in northeastern Spain that have burned 90 square kilometers (35 square miles), including one man who had a heart attack dousing flames around his home and another who died of burns, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said.
Many of the tourists that made it to the beach in Portbou suffered injuries ranging from broken bones and burns to smoke inhalation in their dash down the hillsides with no well-used paths, Cortaba said. "The only way out was to flee and head down toward the sea," she said.
The billowing smoke seriously reduced visibility, making the trip down the hillside even more perilous. The French family of five "just had bad luck that they went down the wrong way," Buixeda said.
Many of those who arrived safely at the beach spent the night in homes of Spaniards from Portbou before leaving Monday. Surprisingly, most of the cars on the road were spared by the fire, Cortaba said.
The fires that broke out Sunday in several parts of the Catalonia region forced more than 1,400 people to stay the night in shelters. Fires were still burning Monday in many places, with roads cut off because of the smoke. In some areas, farmers were helping firefighters by driving water tanker trucks to burning areas.
Train service in the region was suspended and several cross-border roads linking Barcelona with France closed because of the advancing flames, regional government spokesman Felip Puig said Sunday.
Santiago Villa, mayor of Figueres, which houses the famous Salvador Dali museum, said he had ordered the city's 44,000 residents to stay indoors until further notice.
Eighty teams of firefighters had been deployed to combat the wildfires, and specially equipped aircraft were dumping water on them.
Clendenning reported from Madrid. Harold Heckle contributed from Madrid and Elaine Ganley contributed from Paris.