Ten days after the tragedy of Mati, Attica (23 July 2018) I was in the First Cemetery of Athens to remember the life of a dear friend. Entering and leaving, I visited a heart-wrenching sculpture depicting the “Mother of the Occupation” in the throes of death from starvation, her infant child by her side just inside the cemetery. It is a stark reminder of the eternal sufferings of mother and child now being repeated and in the migration crisis and in Attica aflame. Several days earlier a distraught policeman advised a journalist not to venture into Red Bay. He told her however tough she was she would collapse from the horror of utter annihilation she would encounter. The scene included a mother with a child between her legs burned beyond human recognition in the fires that erased the Community of Mati 20 kilometers east of Athens. As a mark of respect and in silent protest candles illuminate Syntagma Square in front of the Greek parliament. At ground zero people gather in church to seek relief and consolation and pay respect to their neighbors and friends after a spark sent Greece into national mourning. It took close to one hundred lives with missing persons and a number still hospitalised.
300 meters above sea level close to a social care facility for children and northeast of Athens a negligent spark ignited dry vegetation to propel a spreading fire front at rapid speed in an easterly direction. Buffeted by gale-force winds parallel to the shore and vertically down the slopes to the sea the blaze raced on pushing the front slightly higher and mainly downwards towards the coastline. Winds gusting in excess of 100 km per hour fanned out the fire’s front to consume almost everything in its path. At times the fire moved like flamethrowers. The rapidity of spread left little room for the hands of man and human intervention. Mati is no more. Several other small townships have been seriously disabled.
From a single spark roughly 1260 hectares of land in eastern Attica burned with utter devastation. The only safety or mitigating factors that applied were proactive; more adequate disaster preparedness, appropriate numbers of well-trained personnel, better know-how deployment and inter-service telephony use. At a higher conceptual level and over the long-term, strong safety factors would be the cultivation of institutional autonomy, further reduction of a stifling bureaucracy and a scientific culture. On a practical level well maintained basic functions of state and wood and grassland land clearance of dry and dead vegetation do make a difference. Communication is key within a dynamic network of engaged elements with one focal point and expert coordination. Several children’s summer coastal camps were hastily and safely evacuated as the raging inferno swept through coastal towns on an easterly rampage.
When viewed from the sea Mati resembles an “eye” through which a fire storm has recently passed. After fire, rain came and now comes the release of toxic materials from burnt debris adding further health hazards to the dangers of smoke inhalation, scorched corneas and fear, which many suffered. The clock in Mati now stands at just after midnight in deep post traumatic shock facing an uncertain future. Its vulnerability has now shifting along the disaster cycle from its developmental phase to the demands of efficient and effective recovery. Some control has been regained. Much more is needed.
After the fires my daughter, a volunteer took me to Mati and to the “hot spot” where Kati an elderly resident keeps the distribution center functioning, maintains logistics, organizes work and keeps food flowing to the hungry. She stopped to give me water while young people maintained a steady flow of coffee and other drinks.
People are numb but resilient. On gates and walls outside of fire destroyed homes survivors had written WE ARE WELL, inducing some sense of optimism. a funeral notice on a telegraph pole listed several dead from the same family, provoking despair. One house stood totally unscathed, its manicured garden looking as if the gardener had just tended it.
Grief is enormous. Horrendous and horrifying death and the agony of still missing presumed dead take the breath away. Lives were lost in cars in attempts to escape the approaching inferno. Victims died in the fire itself, some drowned in the sea while swimming to flee the flames. Parents were looking for children, families searched for grandparents. A husband searched for his wife. A new born baby died in the sea at its mother’s breast, twin sisters were engulfed by flames together with their grandfather while a group of frantic people were penned in by flames before they could reach the sea. A dog showing great anxiety looked for its master. Animals were driven over a cliff by the heat. Firefighters, policemen, health personnel and ordinary people performed generous and heroic acts.
Science now helps the grim work of identifying the remains of those trapped victims in devastating fire. In cases where they were trapped in a small enclosed building with a temperature of two hundred or so centigrade sustained for some hours making identification almost impossible.
Like many other communities Mati evolved haphazardly to a background of inadequately regulated building practices, use of inappropriate materials and in pinewoods; homes built too close together some on top of water courses damned up with building site rubble in a community with poor, impeded access to the in case of an emergency. (As the fires were brought under control, an open space parking lot closer to Athens gave way and cars started to move and slide resulting only in material damage. The cars were parked over a damned up water course.)
Analysis will show that varying levels of changes made or difference will be seen between original architectural plans and final structures of homes. Paying to legalize or legalizing by law what is illegal is part of a standard practice that will require great effort to change. When the system falls apart, bulldozers are brought out to erase illegally built structures.
While drawing conclusions to this disaster should be left to experts there are lessons in abundance from it as well as from earlier disasters. One citizen put it bluntly saying that unregulated town planning (arbitrary - illegal) made evacuation difficult and left people trapped without any escape route. An expert noted that Mati is representative of a community with an inbuilt risk of suicide with a very low probability of occurence.
A well-designed and purposeful scientific assessment of cause and effect is demanded that will provide positive knock-on effects for improved response readiness of the Greek authorities and of society in order to deal with any future disaster. It should point to more efficient and effective strategies, better coordination procedures and improved governance of all related institutions. It should suggest the required necessary and sufficient expertise, expertise that will be listened to within the context of a rejuvenated scientific culture and with the fulfillment of the educational needs of health disaster management and much more. Most fires are a result of negligence.
Worldwide, natural disasters have killed about 4 million people and affected more than 1 billion more over the past 30 years! In Greece I have followed sequential disasters mainly in the capacity of directing international disaster management activities (2000-2018) in disaster research in collaboration with the World Association of Disaster Emergency Medicine (WADEM) supported by the Hellenic Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Health. Many useful but never applied recommendations emanated from the collaboration. Much can be found in the Utstein Template of WADEM that was partially translated into Greek and used in teaching.
A statement emanating from the World Philosophical Forum in Athens 2016: our world and peoples, habitats and cultures face imminent threat; threat to life, to humanity and to the planet; which can erase man’s trace and collective memory. In 2016, representatives of European public health expressed concern with rising population vulnerability from austerity in Greece, the consequences of large refuge trails threading the Balkan Peninsula and the threat of emerging epidemics such as Ebola and West Nile Virus and the potential for cross-border disasters, which so far has included radioactive fallout and flooding.
Each sequential Greek government has done something needed but usually insufficient to arrive at the threshold of significant impact. With each disaster, expert opinions, nonesense and wise words are heard; rumors circulate (Satellite attack with lasers, 2007 / Putin’s revenge, and God’s punishment for an atheist PM, 2018)). In disaster’s aftermath the government claims that things were done well and announces new measures, which may or may not be applied. The opposition says nothing was done well in response to disaster. This exaggerated disparity in perspective reflects a weak scientific culture and a strong party political system. Law suits take off in an exaggerated legalistic culture.
It is no rumor though that Greece is in possession of a contemporary Hitech but unused Burn Treatment Center donated by the Latsis Foundation. It is no rumor that Greece lacks an adequate and effective blood donation-collection system causing it to import blood. Paradoxically however, a result of citizen response to Mati, much collected blood will be discarded. Evacuation plans do exist for example for hospitals, summer camps and communities but they need more frequent review and examination. In depth reviews of the disaster cycle from readiness and preparedness (earthquake, flood, fire) to recovery and revitalization of damaged communities are now more than ever needed.
I end this brief and unfortunate essay on a note celebrating Greek youth who are well prepared to make hard decisions in times of crisis. Seeing the flames approach, teenagers took down curtains, turned off electricity, redistributed furniture, left containers of water in various places of the home, doused down the outside and then fled. They made it! In a stadium close to the hot spot youth spontaneously gathered in small groups which swelled to a critical mass ready to do anything they thought they should do and did. Under their own orders they evolved into a force to be reckoned with.
In the awful story of Attica, youth learned something of chaos and the complexity of disaster as well as the mismatch between real needs of response and the reality at ground zero, and worked with it. It is doubtful that youth can play a role in staying the growing epidemic of West Nile virus as Attica undergoes tighter epidemiological surveillance after reports of several but unconfirmed deaths from the virus. In the past, Greece, suffered greatly from endemic malaria and a pandemic of dengue fever which were eradicated by public health measures. Once again Greece is dealing with mosquito based disease but with a weak and compromised public health infrastructure. In 1927, few cases of dengue fever were noted while the following year, 3000 deaths occurred.
Weekly Epidemiological Report for West Nile Virus disease, Greece, 2018 - 02 August 2018 - Hellenic Center for Disease Control and Prevention (HCDCP) Office for Vector Borne Diseases Department for Epidemiological Surveillance and Intervention.
Rachel Kyte “Chilling Prospects: Providing Sustainable Cooling for All”, 2018 SEforALL.
Athens ASPHER Accord. 2016.
Experience from the 2007 Peloponnese Wildfires: Six Months after the Disaster.
Prehospital and Disaster Medicine / Volume 26 / Issue 02 / April 2011, pp 79-89