RAFINA, Greece – The cries for help pierced the choking smoke. Dozens of people bobbed in the sea, forced by the vicious flames into the water. Children held onto adults, and people who couldn’t swim clung to those who could.
That was the scene confronting Tawefik Halil and other fishermen responding to the overwhelmed Greek coast guard’s urgent call for help as the deadliest wildfires in decades raged through seaside resorts near Athens.
The 42-year-old Halil was among dozens of volunteers who helped save hundreds of people stranded on beaches and in the choppy waters, buffeted by gale-force winds.
“It was chaos, do you understand? Do you know what it’s like to be in all that smoke, not being able to see anything and to have people asking for help?” Halil told the Associated Press on Wednesday.
The fire razed holiday resorts east of Athens and killed at least 81 people. But more than 700 survivors were rescued by boat and taken to the port of Rafina through the night early Tuesday.
Halil said he doesn’t remember how many people he helped save, but he and the others did what they could as they plucked young and old from the water.
“You can’t see anything in the smoke and fire – so much fire and so much smoke. There was so much wind,” he said. “We could not breathe. I almost fainted at some point from all the smoke, and it was very difficult, my friend, it was so difficult. I have never seen such a difficult thing before.”
Many people on the beaches were forced to swim out due to the ferocity of the fire, Halil said.
“The people got trapped: behind them fire and in front of them the sea. What can they do? They got into the sea,” he said.
The people in the water ranged in age from 8 to 70, he said, some clustered together and all pleading for help.
“There were all these people in the water, some knew how to swim and some didn’t,” he said.
“Those that could swim, we saved them. The other ones that did not know how to swim, we do not know if they are there, if they are alive and what happened. No one knows. But what we could do, we did.”
Halil, an Egyptian, who has been living in Greece and working as a fisherman for two decades, said it was his second time dealing with a humanitarian disaster; the first was helping to rescue Syrian migrants after their flimsy boat capsized off the Greek island of Chios in 2015.
It wasn’t all good news for the fishermen helping with this week’s rescue. Halil said his friend’s boat pulled out a dead body.
“It’s a tragic thing,” he said. “I still can’t believe what happened, honestly.”
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