Rescue workers in Greece scoured charred homes and burned-out cars on Wednesday as the toll from some of the worst wildfires this century was expected to rise from at least 74 dead and 187 hurt.
Scores of locals and holidaymakers fled to the sea to try to escape the flames as they tore through towns near Athens stoked by 100-kilometre-per-hour wind gusts, devouring woodland and hundreds of buildings.
Greek media have described the disaster as a “national tragedy”, while Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras cut short a visit to Bosnia and announced three days of national mourning.
The government has not yet said how many people are still missing from the fires, which broke out on Monday, as firefighters continue to battle blazes in some areas.
Terrified residents and tourists were overtaken by the flames in homes, on foot or in their cars. AFP photographers saw the burnt bodies of people and dogs.
The charred bodies of 26 people, including small children, were discovered at a villa at the seaside resort of Mati, 40 kilometers (25 miles) northeast of Athens, rescuers said.
They were huddled together in small groups, “perhaps families, friends or strangers, entwined in a last attempt to protect themselves as they tried to reach the sea”, said rescuer Vassilis Andriopoulos.
“Mati no longer exists,” said the mayor of nearby Rafina, Evangelos Bournous, adding that more than a thousand buildings and 300 cars had been damaged.
On Wednesday a blaze was threatening houses near the seaside town of Kineta, 25 kilometers west of Athens.
Dozens of firefighters were battling the flames aided by helicopters and planes dropping thousands of gallons of water.
A fire service official said that searches to find those missing from the fires would continue Wednesday, although there was still no official word on the number of people still unaccounted for.
The death toll is almost certain to surpass the 77 people who perished in blazes that ripped through the southern island of Evia in 2007.
People have lost everything
Some 187 people have been hospitalized, with 82 still being treated on Tuesday evening, including almost a dozen children, most of whom were in a “serious condition”, the fire services said.
Rain is forecast for the coming days, which will help efforts to douse the flames after temperatures topped 40C (104 Farenheit) on Monday.
Dramatic video footage showed people fleeing by car as the tourist-friendly Attica region declared a state of emergency.
Athanasia Oktapodi, whose home is surrounded by pine trees, said she first spotted the fire moving down the hill “and five or ten minutes later it was in my garden”.
“I ran out like a crazy person, got to the beach and put my head in the water. Then the patrol boats came,” said the 60-year-old.
“I saw the flames outside the window of our hotel. I thought it would explode,” said Alina Marzin, a 20-year-old German tourist who had been staying at the Capo Verde hotel in Mati on Monday evening with her brother and their parents.
At least six people died trying to escape the flames into the sea. Some 715 people were evacuated by boats to Rafina, the government said.
“People are shocked, lost. Some of them have lost everything: children, parents, homes,” said Red Cross spokeswoman Georgia Trisbioti.
The European Union activated its Civil Protection Mechanism after Greece sought help. Several countries said they were sending aircraft to help fight the flames.
The EU’s humanitarian crisis manager, Christos Stylianides, arrived in Athens on Tuesday to assist relief efforts.
“Today is a day of great sorrow for the Greek people and for all of Europe,” he said on Twitter.
The wildfires come as record temperatures in northern Europe have seen blazes cause widespread damage in recent days.