It was 6pm when the smoke reached the town of Mati on the east coast of Greece, 18 miles from Athens. The seaside resort was full of holidaymakers in hotels, or visiting their weekend homes. Within an hour, flames had started to engulf the town, turning the sky red.
By 8pm on 23 July 2018, the fire had destroyed Mati and nearby Kokkino Limanaki; it left 103 dead and more than 140 in hospital, many with severe burns. People died in their homes, in their cars, or as they tried to get to the sea. Those who made it dipped below the waves to stay cool as they waited for the coastguard and local fishermen to rescue them. The flames were propelled by gale-force winds, and the heat reached 800C. The next day, officials estimated that about 40,000 pine and olive trees, along with 4,000 homes, had been destroyed.
One year on, people are still asking how Greece’s worst natural disaster could have happened. Before the fire, Mati had been synonymous with pleasure; it evoked the best of Greece, even if, like many resorts, it was also an unregulated hodgepodge of villas, houses and multistorey apartment blocks built beyond the gaze of town planners. Roads and utilities were basic. Beach-side tavernas, cafes and homes were all connected to a chaotic grid, with electricity supplied from power lines hung from wooden posts.
The sense of shock was underlined by Mati’s proximity to Athens. How could the authorities have bungled the rescue operations so badly? There had been no sirens, no warning system or evacuation plan. The blaze was initially ignored by emergency services, who were battling fires elsewhere; it is now believed to have been started by a man burning brushwood in the back yard of his home on Mount Penteli, west of Mati. Although the 65-year-old has been charged with arson, he has yet to face trial.
Alexis Tsipras – the then prime minister – laid the blame on the anarchic construction of a settlement built without proper planning. This was echoed last month by Maria Kleanthis, the civil servant heading the department of natural disasters at the ministry of infrastructure. “Mati personifies all the flaws and mischief of modern Greece,” she said. “People had built on the waterfront, in the forest, even in ravines.” It was, she lamented, a peculiarly Greek phenomenon, replicated in no other EU state.
But residents accuse the government of incompetence. “Around 400 people got to the sea, so the [official] argument that there was no access or escape routes is rubbish,” says Alexis Andronopoulos, whose family has a summer house in Mati, and who is credited with saving 18 mostly elderly Greeks on his motorbike that night.
In March this year, prosecutors assigned to investigate the tragedy produced a 292-page report detailing “a series of mistakes” made by the authorities. It found that mismanagement by police and fire services, and a lack of coordination between rescue agencies, had resulted in “chaos and a collapse of the system… criminal mistakes and omissions”.
When Tsipras visited Mati, weeks after the fire, he promised to create a “model town” within a year. But the plots here are still burned out, the land scorched. Some say that the government’s handling of the fire was one reason behind its defeat in general elections this month. So far, home owners have received compensation cheques of up to €6,000 (£5,400) each, but most are still struggling to acquire permits to do any repair work. As the community prepares to mark next week’s anniversary with a low-key church service, its campaign for justice goes on: several residents are pursuing private court cases against the government. The survivors are adamant that the tragedy won’t be forgotten. Here, seven people tell their stories of that day.
Dimitris Matrakides, 39, a software engineer, spent hours in the sea before being rescued by fishermen
It’s a very weird feeling running into the sea in your clothes. I was in the water for seven hours and, in all that time, I never took off my trainers or shorts. Bits of wood and metal were flying through the air, cars were going up in flames and gas bottles at the beach cafe were exploding, forcing us to wade further in. I went in up to my neck. Everyone was really frightened.
When the fire first reached the waterfront, many of us in the sea turned round so that our backs were facing the coast. We just stood there, arms crossed, as big clumps of molten ash rained down. The noise was tremendous. There must have been 400 people who ran into the sea. Some of them had been sitting in their cars because of the gridlock, hoping to get out.
I arrived at the beach at about 6.40pm – I had been looking for a mask and some money I had hidden in the roof of our house, which was later obliterated in the fire. But when I couldn’t find the cash and saw the smoke, I ran. My wife, Eleni, had already got out by car with Michaelangelos, our son.
My mother, Fotini, was on the beach with our neighbour, Margarita, and her six-month-old baby. He was crying uncontrollably. Margarita was panicking, her eyes were totally glazed and I remember helping to pull up her shirt so she could breastfeed him; but soon he became unconscious and I had to administer CPR.
To this day I cannot understand why the army wasn’t dispatched to get us on boats, when fishermen were defying the smoke and doing just that. A lot of people, especially kids, were struggling to keep afloat. Once, when all of us saw a light in the distance, we shouted: “Help!”
I called 112, the emergency telephone number. They said they would come to our rescue, but never did. I still haven’t forgiven myself for not putting Margarita and the baby over my shoulders and doing more to get to a hospital. When we finally got them to an ambulance, it was [too] late. The baby died later that night, and Margarita a week later.
I still have nightmares. I am always in the sea – my legs freezing in the cold, my torso frying in the heat.
Alexis Andronopoulos, 50, an engineer, rescued 18 people
I got on my motorbike at my office in Athens and headed to Mati at 6.30pm. I’ve been a forest-fire volunteer for many years, but this time was different. My parents’ summer home is there. I grew up with people who have apartments in the same block.
They’re all elderly now. I wanted to save them. It took me about 20 minutes to get there. I was stopped at the roadblock they’d set up at the crossroads outside the town. I’ll never forget the traffic policeman. He was adamant I was going nowhere. It was my first taste of state services. When, finally, I got in, at around 9pm, it was like a war zone, with cars and houses on fire, panic‑stricken people running up and down. Around the apartment block, a lot of vehicles were completely burnt out, just windows and wheels.
Occasionally, something would explode. I was frightened and there was a moment when I thought: “Should I stay or go?” I found myself stepping over dead bodies as I approached the apartment building. Several corpses were sitting in cars. People who had remained in their apartments were, fortunately, saved; those who had moved from one flat to another were burned.
It was hard to see in the smoke. The first woman I rescued was 80 and had just had a hip replacement. With some difficulty, I got her on the bike, saying: “Close your eyes, hold me tight and don’t think of anything.” I took her up to the roadblock where another friend said her six-year-old daughter was trapped on the beach. I drove back and found her. I’d seen a corpse in the alley leading to the shore, so led her through a garden on my way back. It was the only time I gave anyone my helmet. Again, I told her not to look.
I did 18 runs, each time taking a person out and each time arguing with officers at the roadblock. I insisted it was safe to go in, but they kept saying they were under strict orders. Even an ambulance driver refused to use his walkie-talkie to ask for help. In Greece, nothing works and nobody cares. Special forces with anti-fire uniforms could have gone in earlier. The loss of life was greater because of the delayed response.
For the past year, we’ve been campaigning to help burn victims. The state didn’t think about providing nurses for them, even when they were needed 24/7. Have lessons been learned? I don’t think so. Authorities haven’t even asked the basic question: how could 103 people die, 100 be injured, with not one fire-fighter among them?
Kalli Anagnostou, 37, and her son, Constantinos, six, were severely burned in the fire
It’s as if the clock stopped at 6.30pm on 23 July. Even now, there are days when it feels as if we are back there. It was so violent, with explosions, corpses, cars, houses and trees on fire – and everywhere black, toxic smoke.
We were holidaying at my in-laws’ summer home. At the time, we lived in Dubai; now I joke that we left to escape the heat only to end up in the fire. That day we were taking it easy; I first heard the winds when I woke up from a siesta. I looked out of the window. There was smoke everywhere. Minutes later, I had grabbed my son, Constantinos, and was telling my father-in-law we had to leave.
By the time we got out of the house, there were giant, two-metre-high flames barely two metres away. I remember looking back and seeing blackness. I didn’t feel the flames. It was the heat that burned us – a thermal wave that preceded the fire. As we ran down the street, a neighbour came out of his house in a tiny car and we screamed at him to stop and take us. That saved us. Constantinos’s flip-flops had melted. He was crying: “Mama, we’re burning, Mama, we’re burning.” When we reached the port, a tourist appeared with a first-aid kit and bandaged his feet.
There was a moment when I thought: “This is it, this is how it all ends.” It’s adrenaline that keeps you going. Somehow, my survival instinct prevailed.
I was wearing Lycra leggings and a cotton top and had suffered fourth- and fifth-degree burns across 40% of my body, damaging several layers of my skin, muscle and nerves. After grafts, 80% of my body was affected. Constantinos was also severely burned. I was in a coma for three weeks while the doctors conducted plastic surgery. In total, I spent 67 days in hospital, 21 days in intensive care. Constantinos was in a trauma unit for 35 days and had daily skin-peeling procedures. I will need many more operations in the years ahead.
Before the fire, I was an executive coach. Now, I am training to become a life coach, specialising in trauma. What happened was criminal and I am suing the government for negligence. Everything that was wrong with the Syriza government, the mistakes it made, its ineptitude, was exemplified by what happened here in Mati. It’s not about the money. I see it more as an ethical issue; something I owe to my son.
Tasos Gounarides, 47, a cake-shop owner, is still living in a military camp with his family after their home was destroyed
We lost everything we ever owned. In minutes our house was gutted, our past erased. Every document and photo we ever had was lost to the flames. Still, we consider ourselves lucky. Damianos, my oldest, had broken his arm, so we were at the hospital in Evia when the fire erupted.
With our home destroyed and nowhere else to go, the government put us in a summer camp that belongs to the air force, just outside Mati. It was meant to be a temporary solution, but 11 months later we are still there. There was talk of a rent subsidy, but those who were eligible said it stopped after two months. I didn’t want to risk being out on the streets.
Living in a two-room bungalow hasn’t been easy, but what the fire has taught us is that less is more. The children have their own bedroom. We use ours as bedroom, kitchen, dining room and study. In winter, without any heating, it was cold and extremely damp.
I have spent the past year gathering documents, going to lawyers, notaries and public offices so that I can prove that a house that is now a shell belongs to me. Each document comes at a cost. I must have spent €700 (£630) so far. Our home wasn’t insured for fire.
Not one official has visited us since the tragedy. After many weeks, Tsipras showed up, but he did so on a day when the media was on strike. Another time, he came at 6.30am so that nobody would see him. I’ve heard €90m in private donations has been raised for Mati, but we haven’t seen any of it. The only thing that seems to have been done is the clearing of charred trees.
I’m bothered that our memories have been extinguished. At times, I feel robbed. But situations like this make you stronger. I no longer make grandiose plans or get as anxious as I used to, and we’ve become closer as a family.
There are times when the past hits you. The other day, I found a picture on my phone of my neighbour, Emi, who drowned that night. I can’t bring myself to erase her number.
Weeks after the fire, as 18 volunteers were helping us remove debris from the house, we found my wedding ring under cement and broken roof tiles. I had been looking for it for over a year. It has our anniversary date engraved inside. It was a sign of a new beginning.
Barbara Kasselouri, 51, a teacher and one of the last to escape by car, has since helped set up Mati’s residents’ committee
What happened here exposed the rotten nature of the Greek state. People were being burned alive and our emergency services could not even attempt to protect them. As concerned residents, we’ve set up a committee to look into the disaster.
We’ve made a map locating where people died. Most were outside their houses. Had they been evacuated, or warned by church bells or sirens, they could have been saved.
Anyone who survived did so because of pure luck. I know I did. At 6.40pm, I was one of the last people out, driving the wrong way up Marathonas Avenue. My neighbour four doors down, her daughter and two grand-daughters all died. Her last words on the phone to a friend were: “The fire is coming, we don’t know what to do.”
I can’t think of another country in Europe where the police, fire and emergency response services would be so disorganised. There’s a fire hose right outside my house; it has never worked. That night, there wasn’t a fire engine in sight, and no fire-fighting planes at all. I hear that police and firefighters were saying: “Why should we risk our lives when we only get paid €700 a month?”
It was the same even before the [economic] crisis. If you wanted the forest department to remove a dangerous tree – and there were a lot of them in these parts – you had to pay a bribe.
Officials claim we’re to blame because we prevented access to roads and built where we shouldn’t have, without proper planning. It’s become a line of defence to cover their own ineptitude. Over the years, houses like mine, which they now say are in forest land, have been legitimised by laws passed by a state that wanted to make money. If not, why did the government allow me to buy the house? Why did it accept €13,000 in taxes?
It would take balls for any government to demolish everything that has been “illegally” built in this country. That’s how Mati came to be created; that’s why we now have a million “illegal” homes across Greece.
Christiana Fragkou, 58, owns a property where 26 people were found dead the day after the fire
We’ve been called the owners of the House of Death; the couple who built illegally and cut off access to the sea.
The truth is, people were burned alive because traffic police misdirected drivers down to the coastal road. They couldn’t get to the sea, even on foot, because a tree blocking the nearest access alley went up in flames. In their panic, they ended up outside our property and that’s when we opened the gates and let them through. But our plot ends at a cliff; there isn’t a beach below, but there are rocks, accessed by some rough steps that my grandfather had carved into the cliff face. We’ve had the plot since the 30s. The first group, the people we saw, made it. Others behind them didn’t.
When the winds picked up that day, I had a sense that something was wrong. We could see the smoke in the distance. At about 5.30pm, I said to the family that we had to leave. I knew that, with the winds, the blaze would be heading straight towards us in Kokkino Limanaki. At first, nobody wanted to listen, but I started gathering our animals anyway, putting the cats in cages and taking them with our mountain dog, Max, to our van. My son and mother were in their cars, and we all drove up to the dirt road. There we saw our neighbour, who told us there was no going anywhere; the road was jammed with vehicles. At the same moment, a giant pine tree exploded a few metres away. We realised time was running out.
That’s when people appeared, including neighbours screaming and shouting, and that’s when Vasilis, my husband, yelled: “This way.” Suddenly, all of us ran towards the sea and the little opening in the fence at the bottom of our property that leads to the clifftop. Later, I learned there were 43 of us who outran the flames. I was still holding the cat cages as I ran down the cliff steps. I remember everyone panicking, tripping and falling, but somehow we made it to the rocks below. Suddenly, the sky changed and red-hot ash was raining down, burning the tips of my hair and bits of my body. I kept ducking under the water; a boat rescued us hours later.
There are scenes that haunt me every day. I haven’t been able to talk about it publicly until now. Knowing that so many people got trapped on the property, and died in the way they did, has been devastating.
The earth is still black, but it has begun to sprout green shoots. One day, I want to build a new house on the same spot, because I love that land. My soul won’t rest until it happens.
Mohammed El-Hamisi, 47, an Egyptian fisherman, saved 48 people on his boat, Elpida
The seas around here are unpredictable. That night, the winds were up to 10 on the Beaufort scale, so it was very choppy. And there was smoke everywhere; visibility was nil. It was 7pm when I got the call from a lady who buys fish from me, saying: “Mohammed, we’re on the beach at Kokkino Limanaki and we’re either going to burn or drown. Save us!” My kids said: “Daddy, if there are children, you must go.” I decided to leave instantly.
There were four of us who set out to help, but I couldn’t even see the boat in front of me. My biggest worry was hitting someone who might be struggling in the water, or a rock, or one of the other vessels. From Nea Makri, where my boat Elpida (which means Hope) is moored, it usually takes 30 minutes to get to that part of the coast; but given the circumstances it took us three times that.
The others headed to the port in Mati. I headed to Kokkino Limanaki. As I pulled in, I saw all these people huddled together, holding one another. Thirty minutes later and I think they would have died in the heat. A lot couldn’t swim. Children and their parents were the first to get on board – about 20 of them sitting anywhere they could, in the cabin, on the sides, all in a state of shock. We sailed to Rafina in total silence until we reached the port, where some cried.
I returned with an official from the coastguard. That time, we brought back 28. The last was a woman, an old, very large lady, who was sitting on a rock. She didn’t want to budge. Her back and legs were burnt. She kept saying: “My boy, I’ve lost everything, let me die here.” I kept saying: “No way, you’re coming with us.” I hurt my knee heaving her on to Elpida. I still don’t know if she made it, but she is the one I can’t forget.
A few days later, my engine conked out. I couldn’t work for a month. It cost me ¤5,000 to replace it. I had to borrow the money and am still paying it off. Lots of people ask me what they can give me, because I saved their families. But how I can accept anything from people who’ve lost everything? Prime minister Alexis Tsipras invited me and my family to his office. That was nice. I was granted Greek citizenship after my daughter, also called Elpida, asked Tsipras. I’ve lived in Greece since the age of 17, when I left Egypt.
But I’ve still not received any compensation for the engine. I’ve spoken to MPs about it. If someone asked me for help again, I’d go. But if the state asked, I’m not so sure.