Wednesday 26 June 2019

'It makes no sense that thiscan happen'

Eyewitness accounts paint a harrowing picture of the wildfires that engulfed Irish newly-weds, writes Maeve Sheehan

DEVASTATION: An aerial photo shows burnt houses and trees following a wildfire in Mati, east of Athens. Picture: AP
DEVASTATION: An aerial photo shows burnt houses and trees following a wildfire in Mati, east of Athens. Picture: AP
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

Brian O'Callaghan-Westropp and Zoe Holohan exchanged their wedding vows under a cloudless sky. In the photographs taken at the reception at Clonabreany House in Kells, Co Meath, they beamed into camera, both looking radiant.

They celebrated with almost 80 relatives and close friends - including the television star Alan Hughes and his partner, Karl Broderick - late into the night. The images capturing that happy day will no doubt be a cherished memory for those who celebrated with the couple last Thursday week.

Two days later, Brian and Zoe embarked on their honeymoon, flying to Athens, and from there to Mati, an upmarket resort 39km east of the city, not far from the port of Rafina, where ferries run to Cyclades islands. The village of 200 swells to thousands in the summer, with tavernas and hotels on the shore and villas stretching into the cliffs behind.

The pine trees that lined the hills and fringed the beach were part of Mati's gentle charm but served to feed the wildfire inferno that razed the village last Monday afternoon, killing 88 people in one of the worst wildfires in Europe for decades.

Zoe Holohan survived, with serious burn injuries. Her new husband Brian O'Callaghan-Westropp did not. The families of both are in Athens this weekend. They are supporting Zoe, who is in hospital, stable but requiring surgery, and preparing to bring Brian's body home.

Friends and colleagues back in Ireland are struggling to comprehend the brutally unexpected tragedy that struck the popular couple at what should have been the happiest time of their lives.

In the chaotic aftermath of what the Greek prime minister called "a Biblical disaster", the stories of loss, survival and heroism that are emerging from shell-shocked survivors provide a terrifying picture of the nightmare Brian and Zoe found themselves in.

Wildfires are not uncommon in the intense arid conditions of Greece. The flames were visible in the distant hills behind Mati last Monday afternoon. But usually winds from the sea keep the flames away from the coastal resorts. Instead, by early Monday evening, winds changed direction and picked up speed, flames galloping downhill through the pine forests and arid landscape towards the tourist settlements below.

Debbie Vinzani, a tourist from the United States staying in Hotel Mati on the coast, told reporters she noticed the flames around 6pm. "It was supper time and we saw the fire on the mountain. The hotel staff were rather cool saying that every year we have fires," she said. Within an hour, she said, the big pine in the yard of the hotel was on fire.

Andreas Matsios, a resident of Mati, said that by 7pm most parts of the village were ablaze: "The pines were burning, we were waiting for the gas canisters to start exploding," he told local media.

Katerina Pantelidis told the BBC she looked outside to see the trees on fire and her windows shattered. She ran with her parents to the beach, along with hundreds of others escaping the flames and smoke. They remained on the shore, breathing through their wet clothes, waiting five hours for rescue. Others swam out to sea.

Eyewitnesses described cars jammed to a halt on the route out of town, forcing motorists to flee on foot to escape the wall of fire by heading for the beach. One resident of Mati, Kostas Laganos, said the "flames were chasing us all the way to the water".

Others were impeded by thick smoke and flying embers.

Three members of the Fytrou family perished. Evita Fytrou, a 14-year-old national cycling champion, reportedly leapt to her death from a clifftop. The remains of her father, Grigoria, and brother Andreas (11) were found in the family's car. Their mother survived because she was at work.

Christiana Fragou, whose garden leads down to the sea, opened her gate to the people trapped on the street and pointed them towards the cliff path to the beach. Her son, Iason, told reporters more than 30 people, including children, ran toward the metal gate that led to a path down the cliffs to the water. They all made it. Harrowingly, Mrs Fragou's son described how from the safety of the waterfront below, she saw the flames engulf the pine trees in her garden, while a group of people were trying to escape.

Vassilis Andropoulos was among the volunteers who found the charred remains of 26 people, including children, at the plot. "It was one of the most tragic moments of my life," he told reporters. "The bodies were found in groups of three or four, all clinging to one another. Tragically, they were steps away from the gate that would have given them safe passage to the sea. "They almost made it."

Petros Kannas, who owns a grocery store in Mati, told The Times: "There must have been dozens more who perished in that plot and other adjacent fields."

Firefighters later said the population would have had about 20 minutes to evacuate the town.

These were the terrifying scenes that faced Zoe Holohan and Brian O'Callaghan-Westropp as they fled their holiday villa in the resort on Monday afternoon. It is believed they had tried to escape by car but what happened is not clear.

The only eyewitness account to emerge is from a fire fighter, Manos Tsaloagos, and two colleagues, who gave an interview to the Daily Mail.

He told the newspaper: "I was in the fires, I went towards a car which had many people inside, there were three adults in the front and six children in the back. This woman (Zoe) was in the boot area. At this point she and her husband weren't together and she didn't know where her husband was. She was in shock. At first, she wasn't saying anything. She wasn't saying much but she was crying and saying about her husband 'I have lost him in the fire'."

The firefighter told the Daily Mail he took her from the boot of the BMW estate. "She needed to be got out quick. Me and my colleagues lifted her in our arms. We kept spraying her with water," he said. "We took her back to the fire station and then the ambulance came and took her to hospital. She was burnt on her arms, on her legs and a little on her front, but the doctor was very confident when he arrived, thinking she will be OK."

Brian's remains were found after the blaze subsided. His body was identified by a family member. The Holohan and O'Callaghan-Westropp families released a statement to confirm the sad news and to request privacy.

"We are deeply saddened to confirm the death of our family member Brian O'Callaghan-Westropp. The families would respectfully appreciate privacy at this time as we grieve and as Zoe makes her recovery. Funeral arrangement will be announced at a later stage."

Greek authorities are investigating the cause of the blaze, as recriminations begin. Officials suspect arson because the wildfire appears to have started at three different locations simultaneously. The mayor of Penteli - where the blaze started - was quoted yesterday attributing the fire outbreak to electrical cables. Another local politician questioned whether the lack of a warning to residents and poor urban planning may have contributed to the death toll.

For now, Zoe, Brian and their families are foremost in the minds of their many friends and colleagues back home. Messages of love and support have been sent to Zoe and they await with heavy hearts the return of Brian's remains.

Brian was originally from Killaloe, Co Clare, but lived in Dublin where he was general manager of Ready Chef. Zoe worked in advertising with the Sunday World, part of Independent News & Media.

Friends described Brian as a giant of a man, generous to a fault and always positive. He signed up as a volunteer in March last year with Blood Bikes East (BBE), a charity that transports urgent medical packages, such as blood, between hospitals in the Dublin area. He soon became a key member of the committee, driving new governance codes to satisfy new rules introduced by the Charities Regulator.

Franco De Bonis of BBE recalls his first meeting with Brian: "He really wanted to do as much as he could. He was the kind of guy who wouldn't do anything by halves. He would throw himself at this stuff."

It was typical that Brian volunteered to work New Year's Eve. "Our first run in 2018 at 1am - it was Brian who made that run. That's the kind of guy he was. When everyone else was celebrating and enjoying themselves, he was the one who said 'I'll do the New Year's Eve shift. Don't worry, I'll take it'," said Franco.

He said Brian was so excited about his wedding to Zoe. Franco last saw him at a volunteer meeting two weeks ago. "To think that would be the last time we would see him. What should have been the most amazing time of his life ended so badly," he said.

"When we got the news that he had been identified and that he had died, it was unfathomable," he said. "He was an enormous personality. He was a man of action. If you got in the way of doing the right thing, he would simply move you out of the way. He was a tour de force. It just seemed incredible that this monster of energy could no longer be with us. And it still makes no sense to us that can happen."

It is likely that it will take some time for Brian's remains to be brought back to Ireland, while Zoe is expected to remain in hospital in the immediate future.

Friends and colleagues are keen to rally round. His co-workers at Ready Chef paid tribute to his positivity and his dedication, describing him as someone who provided guidance, who was respected, and who encouraged everyone to achieve their full potential.

A group of former classmates from his MBA course set up a GoFundMe page to help meet the expenses involved in repatriating his remains. "Brian was a natural leader who represented our class during our MBA journey. His enthusiasm, passion and zest for life were infectious. It is incredible to think that Brian was completing his second consecutive Masters course while volunteering, fundraising and planning his wedding to his beloved Zoe. His focus and drive were inspirational to all whom he encountered," said a statement from the MBA group.

Franco said he has been inundated with support from members of the Irish motorbiking community. "These are people far and wide. That is the kind of respect for the person he was, for the time and commitment he gave to others. He was an incredibly selfless person. We are going to miss him. We don't even know yet how much we are going to miss him, but we are."

Sunday Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News