Greece to Begin Laying Wildfire Victims to Rest Amid Bitter Accusations

July 28, 2018 Updated: July 29, 2018    

Greece will begin burying the victims this weekend of a devastating wildfire near Athens which killed at least 88 people and raised recriminations over the government’s handling of the disaster.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras took political responsibility on Friday for the tragedy as opposition leaders blamed the government for failing to adequately safeguard lives.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in Athens, Greece, July 5, 2018. (REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis)

On Sunday, three members of the same family are due to be laid to rest in the first known funeral since the blaze broke out on Monday in the seaside village of Mati, 30 km (17 miles) east of the Greek capital Athens.

People watch a wildfire raging in the town of Rafina, near Athens, Greece, July 23, 2018. (REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis)

“We will say our final goodbye to our much-loved Grigoris, Evita and Andreas … tragic victims in Mati,” the Fytrou family said in a statement published by the Athens news agency, asking media not to attend.

Missing twin nine-year-old girls Sofia and Vasiliki Filippopoulou, whose pictures have featured internationally including in The Times newspaper, were confirmed dead, state broadcaster ERT reported on Saturday.

DNA tests showed the pair, who had prompted a national outpouring of sympathy, and their grandparents had died in the blaze at Mati. Their grandfather’s burnt-out car was located outside a plot of land where 26 people died, with some of the victims found embracing each other in death, ERT said.

The aftermath of a wildfire is seen in Mati, Greece July 24, 2018 in this photo obtained from social media on July 27, 2018. (ARIS ERDOGDU/via REUTERS)

The government has announced a long list of relief measures and promised to tackle decades-old problems, including haphazard and unlicensed residential building, to minimize the risk of a repeat disaster and cool public anger.

A deputy mayor in Marathon, which administers some of the fire-affected areas, on Saturday became the first official to resign over the wildfire.

Survivors and political opponents accused Tsipras and his government of insensitivity for not apologizing for Greece’s deadliest blaze in memory and for failing to prevent the tragedy.

He cut short a visit to Bosnia on Monday night, rushing home hours after the killer blaze broke out near Athens. But falling off the radar for three days after that has infuriated some people.

“How does he plan to redeem this political responsibility? What does political responsibility mean?” a 79-year-old man standing in front of his burnt home told Skai TV.

Venting anger, survivors and political opponents want to see officials resign over the failure to prevent the disaster amid questions on why an evacuation did not take place.

Tsipras appeared on TV screens on Friday to chair a cabinet meeting after an official three days of mourning ended. Aides said he had been busy coordinating the disaster response.

He said he took “full political responsibility” for the disaster. But for those who survived the inferno, the words meant little.

“Words are nice … but I want him to tell me and the people who perished, our friends … whose fault it is, if not his. I’ve reached my limits.”

Burning questions

The wildfire in Mati laid bare decades of ills of the Greek state – unlicensed building dotting the Greek landscape, tolerated by the state as governments turn a blind eye to non-compliance and eventually legalize built homes to win votes.

On Monday night, five hours after the fire had started, state TV showed Tsipras rushing from the airport to an operations center in Athens, asking ministers in a live broadcast what happened and how many personnel had been deployed to put out the flames.

He did not ask nor was he told anything about fatalities in Mati, the small seaside town where dozens were trapped by advancing flames and died. At least not on camera.

“Which begs the question: Didn’t they know by then what had happened?” said Pavlos Christides, spokesman for the Socialist Pasok.

On Tuesday morning the death toll was 49 people. Rescuers had found the bodies of 26 people hugging each other in a field. Survivors said it all happened in less than two hours.

Tsipras holed up

After announcing three days of mourning later that day, the leftist Tsipras was invisible until Friday. He is not known to have visited any of the survivors in hospital.

“He was in his office, chairing meeting after meeting, with the citizen protection minister, the interior minister, the mayors; he was busy coordinating the operation,” one government official said.

The civil protection minister, Nikos Toskas, said he could not see any big mistakes made but added that there were indications of arson, something the then ruling conservative New Democracy party also said in 2007, when fires killed dozens of people in southern Greece.

Despite announcing a long list of relief measures, Tsipras was accused by the opposition of burying his head in the sand. He rejected the accusations during the cabinet meeting.

The prime minister is more focused on the “communications aspect” of the crisis than “what really matters,” Christides said, arguing the government should prioritize the plight of those affected.

“There is no point in talking about his absence or his presence; there is definitely political responsibility.”

Tsipras has been trailing New Democracy, the main political opposition, in opinion polls. Its leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited the fire-stricken areas this week. TV images showed a woman sobbing in his arms.

Tsipras’ coalition partner, Defence Minister Panos Kammenos, visited Mati to face the anger of survivors. “You left us at God’s mercy!” a tearful woman shouted at Kammenos, who also got into a heated debate with a survivor on whether help was sent in a timely manner.

Tsipras has promised closure, saying the government will look into what went wrong and fix past failings to avoid a repeat tragedy. Whether the Mati disaster will damage his popularity further remains to be seen and will be decided by his actions, analysts said.

But it is not uncommon for politicians in Greece to stay out of the public eye after a disaster.

“It is standard practice that in dead-end situations, the object of … hatred vanishes,” said political analyst Dimitris Mavros, adding that no politician could take the risk of appearing helpless, standing above the ashes.