Deadly Wildfires Sweep Through Towns Near Athens, Greece

Updated at 6:37 a.m. ET on Tuesday

At least 50 people have died and more than 150 are injured as huge fires fueled by powerful winds burned homes and forests in towns near the Greek capital, Athens, government officials said.

After authorities confirmed at least 24 dead on Monday, Greek Red Cross workers made a gruesome discovery close to a beach not far from the badly-burned village of Mati.

“We’ve found 26 more bodies,” said Nikos Economopoulos, the Greek Red Cross director. “What a terrible day.”

Rescue workers said the victims appeared to be families. The charred bodies were found huddled together. Some appeared to be hugging.

Greece has declared a state of emergency. Several European Union countries, as well as Israel, have offered to send help.

Greek firefighters battled the flames throughout the night near the seaside town of Kineta, about 35 miles west of Athens, and around the towns of Pendeli and Kalamos in the north.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras cut short his visit to neighboring Bosnia and quickly returned to Athens. He told reporters that his government will do “whatever is humanly possible to control” the fires.

He also pled with Greeks in affected areas to leave immediately. TV footage showed several trying to fight the fires with garden hoses or buckets filled with water.

“What’s most important now is your life,” he said. “Properties and material wealth can be replaced. Human lives cannot.”

Citizens’ Protection Minister Nikos Toskas suggested arsonists caused the fires. The Greek Supreme Court has ordered an investigation.

Wildfires are not unusual during Greece’s hot, dry summers. Dozens of people died during an especially fiery summer in 2007.

But Monday’s blazes near Athens spread so quickly, they seemed to catch everyone off guard.

Giorgos Mathiopoulos, the head of Greece’s emergency workers association, told reporters that one fire broke out around noon and the second around 5 p.m.

By early evening, a huge plume of smoke was visible on Acropolis hill. The sky glowed orange.

Powerful, hot winds spread the flames, forcing hundreds from their homes. Achilleas Tzouvaras, a senior fire chief, told residents lingering near their fire-threatened homes to “just leave.”

“People cannot tolerate so much smoke for so many hours,” he said on state TV. “This is an extreme situation.”

Greek TV stations broke into live coverage, showing panoramas of burning homes and pine trees and close-ups of distraught homeowners in masks.

Motorists on the Athens-Corinth highway to the Peloponnese in southern Greece had to pull over because they couldn’t see due to the thick smoke. Authorities closed the highway.

The seaside resort village of Mati in eastern was nearly consumed by the flames. One resident told reporters she escaped the fire by jumping into the sea. Another compared it to Pompeii.

In Penteli and Rafina, northeast of Athens, children were evacuated from summer camps. SKAI TV news reported that residents and vacationers fled to nearby beaches in Rafina, where they were rescued by the coast guard. Ten panicked tourists, reportedly from Denmark, also fled a beach by boat. Five have been located and rescued.

At least three villages have been evacuated. Evangelos Bournous, the mayor of the seaside town of Rafina, told reporters that he had personally seen many homes go up in flames.

Firefighters also battled other fires around the country: on Crete, in the northern town of Soufli and near Corinth. On Sunday, there was also a fire on Skopelos, the island where the 2008 hit film Mamma Mia was shot.

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