As the wall of flames swept through the heavily forested mountain toward her home, the mother of four was forced to make a life and death decision — should she flee?
Athanasia Paraskevopoulou gathered her three daughters, aged 15, 12 and 10, and her 5-year-old son and headed to the village square. Her husband was elsewhere and as the fire approached she bundled her children into a car.
Firefighters later found their charred remains not far from Artemida, the village they fled Friday, the mother’s arms wrapped tightly around her children. Their home survived virtually unscathed, but the family was among at least 63 victims claimed by Greece’s worst wildfire disaster in memory.
The 37-year-old teacher from Athens was enjoying the end of the summer holiday in the family’s vacation home in this wooded mountain village near the sea when wildfires started breaking out across the Peloponnese peninsula Thursday — fires that have since swept over large swathes of the country and scorched world heritage sites such as Ancient Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games.
The approaching wildfires struck fear among the 100 or so residents of the village of Artemida, nestled amid the olive groves that were its main source of income.
“Everyone was in a panic. Within 10 minutes, the fire swept in from the east and was all around us, both above and below the village,” said 37-year-old Lambrini Tzevelekou, a friend of Paraskevopoulou’s. “They gathered everyone together in the square, Athanasia and her four children, along with two young foreign kids, two grandmothers and four other children, and all left together packed in cars.”
“It was horrible,” said Tzevelekou’s 15-year-old son, Ioannis. “The fire came over like a huge tide.”
The convoy of cars sped out of the village and when the vehicles reached a fork in the road, a decision was made to go down toward Zaharo — a town about six miles away.
“There were two roads to choose from — there was no other alternative out of town. If you went down (the road), you died. If you went on the upper road, you lived,” said village president Giorgos Korifas.
According to residents and rescuers, the leading part of the convoy apparently crashed into a fire truck speeding toward the village. The truck overturned, blocking part of the road. With little visibility because of the smoke, the remainder of the convoy slammed into the wreckage and at least four cars burned. Those who survived the pileup, including Paraskevopoulou and her children, fled on foot.
Firefighters later found the charred remains of the mother and children huddled on a hillside near the accident. Nine people died on that road and they were among 23 victims from the region around the village, the largest single group of dead from the wildfires.
Another couple, 70-year-old Panagiotis Lambropoulos and his wife, were more fortunate.
“I saw the flames about 150 meters away. We got in the car, drove about 10 meters, and then the flames suddenly grew huge,” he said. “We abandoned the car and crawled through the woods, about 400 meters, arm in arm so that if we died, we would die together.”
The couple managed to reach the upper road, and safety.
If Paraskevopoulou had stayed at home, neighbors say the family would have survived.
“Nothing would have happened to them. The few that stayed didn’t get injured,” said Vassiliki Tzevelekou, another neighbor. “The house has not suffered any damage, but it’s better for the house to have been burnt than people.”
Lambrini Tzevelekou said her friend “was a very good woman. What has happened was so unlucky.”
The decision faced by Paraskevopoulou, to stay or go, was similar to that made by thousands of people trapped unaided in mountain villages. Although Greece has the largest fleet of firefighting planes in Europe, its forces were stretched to the breaking point Friday, the day Paraskevopoulou died, as 124 fires raged around the country — many of them near Artemida.
“It is incredible that villagers should abandon their homes by road in convoys without a fire truck to open the way for them, allowing an accident to cause the tragic losses we saw, said Nikos Bokaris, head of the Panhellenic Union of Forestry Experts. “I believe these deaths were due to criminal errors and ignorance of the danger and the circumstances of the blaze.”