Sorrow was giving way to anger in Greece on Thursday as rescuers searched scorched land and the coastline for survivors three days after a wildfire destroyed a village outside Athens killing at least 82 people.
Desperate relatives appeared on television to plead for help. Some blamed authorities for the disaster, the country’s deadliest blaze in decades, as one official suggested the residents of Mati should have been evacuated earlier.
“This shouldn’t have happened, people perished for no reason,” a woman in tears shouted at Defence Minister Panos Kammenos as he visited the village and nearby fire-ravaged areas. “You left us at God’s mercy!”
With the death toll expected to rise, about 300 firemen and volunteers combed through the area looking for dozens still missing, who included nine-year-old twin sisters.
Others took to broadcast networks to appeal for information.
One woman said she was looking for her brother, who had been returning from work when the fire broke out. “My father was the last person to talk to him on Monday evening,” Katerina Hamilothori told Skai TV. “We have had no news at all.”
The cause of the fire is still unclear, and is being investigated by an Athens prosecutor who is also reviewing the way it was handled.
Local authorities said high and unpredictable winds would have made even the best-executed evacuation plan futile, but firefighters told Reuters that some water hydrants in the area were empty.
One theory being examined is that the blaze was started deliberately in three locations at the same time.\
Outside the coroner’s service in Athens the mood was grim as people arrived to help identify their loved ones and submit evidence.
With most corpses badly charred, identification of the dead will be challenging, experts said.
“It will be very painful, we will then have the identification … the funerals, more pain,” said Evangelos Bournous, the mayor of Rafina-Pikermi, an area close to Mati.
“I fear the number of the dead will increase.”
Donations in food, blood, medicine and clothes had exceeded all expectations, he said.
At least 187 people were injured in the blaze, including 22 children. They have all been identified, civil protection authorities said.
Initial inspections showed that more than 500 homes in the wider area were damaged, most of them beyond repair. More than 300 burned cars had been transferred to a yard in Rafina, to unblock the narrow roads that became death traps on Monday evening.
A long list of relief measures announced by the left-led government including a one-off 10,000 euro payment and a job in the public sector for victims’ spouses and near relatives, for many, not enough to ease the pain.
“A drop in the ocean,” read the front page of newspaper Ta Nea.
Mati, less than 30 km (17 miles) east of Athens, was popular with local tourists, including pensioners.
The fire broke out on Monday at 4:57 p.m. and spread rapidly through the village.
Firefighters described a rapid change in the direction of the wind which also picked up speed, while some suggested that, the thick covering of pine trees and a mood of panic was a deadly combination that would have been hard to combat.
“The main factor was the wind, its speed and its direction. It should have been looked at earlier,” said the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Greece director of Dimitris Karavellas.
“These people should have been ordered out of this area… This is the only thing that could have saved them.”