The death toll from the firestorm that swept through a seaside resort town near the Greek capital climbed to at least 80 people Wednesday, as harrowing stories of surviving the inferno began to emerge.
The Greek Fire Brigade said the death of a survivor at a hospital had brought the toll up to at least 80 people. The service had also received dozens of calls reporting missing persons, but it was unclear if some of them were among those found dead, a spokesperson told Reuters.
The two largest wildfires — one 20 miles northeast of Athens near Rafina, the other 30 miles west of the capital in Kineta — broke out Monday during hot, dry summer conditions.
The speed with which the blaze, located northeast of Athens, spread took many by surprise, with survivors describing people fleeing to beaches and swimming out to sea despite high waves, desperately trying to escape thick smoke and flaming pine cones raining down into the water.
"We couldn't see any fire. The fire came suddenly. There was so much wind, we didn't realize how it happened," Anna Kiriazova told the Associated Press. Kiriazova survived the blaze with her husband, Theodoros Christopoulos, by staying in their house instead of trying to flee through the flames.
"We shut ourselves in the house, we closed the shutters, we had towels over our faces," she told AP. "The inferno lasted about an hour. I have no words to describe what we lived through."
The 56-year-old said the couple used a garden hose to douse their house in the Mati area near Rafina with water, and said because their window frames were made of metal instead of wood, their home was spared. Her husband said the decision to stay at the house was due to jammed roads.
"There was a great panic because the whole street was blocked by cars," Christopoulos said. "Shouting, hysteria, they could see the fire was coming with the wind. It already smelled a lot, the sky was black overhead and in no time at all the fire was here."
Those who fled towards beaches found themselves having to swim into the ocean, choking and blinded by the smoke and pulled by the strong current.
Nikos Stavrinidis told the AP in a dramatic account he was with a group of people who struggled to stay afloat for two hours after being disoriented in the smoke across the wind-whipped seas.
"We fell into the sea and tried to distance ourselves, to get away from the monoxide. We went as far in as we could," he said. "But as we went further, there was a lot of wind and a lot of current and it started taking us away from the coast. We were not able to see where we were."
Stavrinidis said a fishing boat eventually rescued him, his wife and two of their friends but they had to watch a woman and her son disappear under the rough surf.
"There was a great panic because the whole street was blocked by cars."
"It is terrible to see the person next to you drowning and not be able to help him. You can't," Stavrinidis told the AP. "That will stay with me."
There was no official indication as to how many people might be missing, and some took to social media and Greek television stations with appeals for information on their loved ones.
Experts have said that identifying the bodies, including 26 found clasped in a last embrace near a beach, will be difficult because so many corpses are badly charred.
One woman told state television she fled into the sea with her daughter and grandchildren, aged 13 and 15, and they were forced to swim out beyond the shallows along with many others who had sought shelter on the beach.
"The sea was burning, the flaming pine cones were falling into it," said the woman, who gave only her first name, Mary. "We couldn't stay (in the shallows)."
More than 280 firefighters were still in the area to the northeast of Athens in the wider Rafina area, dousing the remaining flames to prevent flare-ups. An additional 200 firefighters backed up by a water-dropping helicopter were tackling the second forest fire west of the capital, near Agioi Theodori.
The Greek anti-terrorist service was investigating suggestions that the blaze was started deliberately, a security source told Reuters. Flags across the country flew at half-staff after the prime minister declared three days of national mourning.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.