In this image taken from video, Nikos Stavrinidis gives a dramatic account of how he escaped from Greek forest fire, in Mati, near Athens, Tuesday July 24, 2018. Stavrinidis said he fled from the fire, swimming into the sea and choking smoke only to get swept away by the current into the sea, and then he was rescued by a fishing boat. (AP Photo)

Greek forest fire survivor tells of dramatic flight, rescue

July 24, 2018 - 12:29 pm

RAFINA, Greece (AP) — The fire came suddenly, and the group of friends ran. When they reached the beach and there was nowhere more to run, they swam into the ocean, choking and blinded by the smoke and pulled by the strong current.

The same winds that fanned the flamed had whipped up the seas, and soon they lost sight of the shore and became disoriented.

For two hours the group struggled to stay afloat, until salvation came in the form of a fishing boat and its Egyptian crew. Nikos Stavrinidis was pulled to safety. So was his wife and two of their friends.

But two more — a woman and her son — had disappeared into the waves.

"It is terrible to see the person next to you drowning and not be able to help him. You can't," Stavrinidis said, his voice breaking. "That will stay with me."

The couple had gone to the Greek port of Rafina to prepare their summer home for their daughter, who planned to visit for the summer, when they were caught up in Greece's deadliest wildfires in more than a decade.

"It happened very fast. The fire was in the distance, then sparks from the fire reached us. Then the fire was all around us," he said. "The wind was indescribable — it was incredible. I've never seen anything like this before in my life."

And so they ran, making their way toward the beach, but even that wasn't safe.

"We ran to the sea. We had to swim out because of the smoke, but we couldn't see where anything was," he said.

The current was strong and the smoke blinding, and the friends fought to stay afloat.

"We fell into the sea and tried to distance ourselves, to get away from the monoxide. We went as far in as we could," he said. "But as we went further, there was a lot of wind and a lot of current and it started taking us away from the coast. We were not able to see where we were."

Stavrinidis credited the crew of the fishing boat for saving the surviving friends.

"They jumped into the sea with their clothes still on," he said. "They made us tea and kept us warm. They were great."

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