RAFINA, Greece (AP) — The cries for help pierced the choking smoke. Dozens of people bobbed in the sea after vicious flames forced them into the water. Children as young as 8 held onto adults, and people who couldn’t swim clung to those who could.
That was the scene confronting Tawefik Halil, 42, as he and other fishermen plucked young and old from the water after the overwhelmed Greek coast guard asked for help.
Halil is among dozens of volunteers being hailed as heroes for helping to save hundreds of people stranded on beaches and in the sea as deadly forest fires raged through holiday resorts near Athens Monday night.
“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.
He said he doesn’t remember how many people he helped save, but he did what he could.
“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.”
The fire razed holiday resorts east of Athens and killed at least 79 people. But more than 700 survivors were rescued by boat and taken to the port of Rafina through the night early Tuesday.
Many people on the beaches were forced to swim out due to the ferocity of the fire, said Halil.
“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.”
The 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 off the Greek island of Chios.
It wasn’t all good news for the fishermen that day. 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.”