On Tuesday, the destruction was complete. Most of Mati, a seaside resort in the center of the hottest forest fires in Greece for more than ten years, was no more.
In the inferno it had been rendered lifeless, its streets turned into carpets of ash, its buildings blackened, its cars morphed into carcasses of steel, some piled one on top of the other, testimony to the terror that had descended on the community on Monday afternoon. Gale-force winds had fanned flames as high as walls that had gobbled up the village.
And then there were the dead. By Tuesday afternoon an official death toll of 74 had been announced. With rescue workers going door to door and car to car finding bodies, there were almost certainly more.
What many had hoped would be the best escape from the flames and smoke – the sea – had instead become a route to death. Charred bodies were plucked from the water or found on beaches.
Nikos Stavrinidis, one of more than 700 survivors to be rescued by a flotilla of coastguard vessels, fishing boats and private craft, told how the winds had fanned the flames and whipped up the seas, disorienting those who had rushed into the ocean when there was nowhere else to run.
“It’s terrible to see the person next to you drowning and not be able to help,” he said, describing how he and a group of friends spent two hours struggling to stay afloat before salvation appeared in the form of an Egyptian-manned fishing boat.
Before disaster struck, it was the sound of the wind – louder than a roar and all-consuming – that had sounded the alarm. “It happened so fast. The fire was in the distance, then sparks from the fire reached us. Then the fire was all around us,” he said. “The wind was indescribable. It was incredible.”
As Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, declared three days of mourning, and firefighting planes flew overhead, disbelief hung heavy in Mati’s putrid air. Locals sat outside buildings, many in shorts and ash-covered T-shirts, holding their heads in their hands or looking aimlessly into the distance.
“No one has really understood reality, they are all in a state of shock,” said Aris Bouranis, the community’s president, stopping momentarily in his pickup truck on Poseidonos, Mati’s main street. “Dead people, dead people, there are dead people everywhere.”
Early on Tuesday the remains of 26 men, women and children had been found in an open lot off Poseidonos, almost all of them locked in embrace. Among them, mothers protectively holding their children – a last act before the flames engulfed them.
Retracing their steps, rescue workers believe most headed to the area because of its proximity to the sea before discovering in the smoke and confusion that there was no access from the clifftop to the beach below.
“It’s an absolute catastrophe,” sighed Tesse Pappa, one of countless volunteers who had rushed to the resort in her car to hand out medicine, water and food. “All we have seen, all day, is tragedy, sadness, disaster and loss.”
Among those who felt they had cheated death was Cleanthis Rorris, a retired sea captain. At 81, the white-haired former sailor has lived in Mati for almost half his life. He had built a studio – “my kingdom” – in the garden of a two-storey villa he had since handed to his children.
In a few hours the property had been reduced to cinders, with the exception of the studio which remained intact. “When the flames began to leap across the street I ran to my car so fast my shoes fell off,” he recalled, standing outside the villa’s charred remains on Stefanou Street.
An upright man, even in this dark hour he was sanguine. Was he not angry at how wicked nature could be?
“I’ve spent the day thinking about the elements. Half my life was spent at sea, the rest here on this piece of earth, and now with this awful fire I realise I have come full circle,” he said. “I’ve experienced them all and I am lucky. I am still here. I am still alive.”