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Greek fire crews fight to save lives and antiquities

Flames threaten ancient Olympia. At least 58 people have been killed in dozens of blazes.

August 27, 2007|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

athens -- Deadly wildfires racing across Greece threatened some of the world's most important antiquities Sunday as fire brigades struggled to gain control of what officials believed to be an arson-fueled inferno.

At least 58 people were killed as of Sunday evening in dozens of fires that have raged for three days, consuming entire villages and driving thousands of people from their homes. The government, which on Saturday declared a nationwide state of emergency, offered rewards of up to nearly $1.4 million for information leading to the arrest of suspected arsonists.

In a dramatic rescue effort Sunday, firefighters battled to save ancient Olympia, the legendary site of the first Olympic Games nearly 3,000 years ago. Flames moved up to the edge of the site, singeing the surrounding pine forests and the yard of its centerpiece museum, where several famous classical statues are housed. But firefighters backed by planes and helicopters managed to hold the flames back, officials said.

Residents in the area were evacuated in a chaotic flight from what was once the center of worship of Zeus, the king of the ancient Greek gods. The marble ruins of pagan temples contributed to Olympia's designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

"They managed to destroy our past, our present and our future," a man in his 30s said of the fires, speaking to Greek television from his home near Olympia.

"It's hell everywhere," said another, echoing the pleas repeated for days by desperate, frantic residents. "Please help us. . . . We are going to burn alive here."

Christos Zahopoulos, secretary-general of the Greek Culture Ministry, said sprinklers, water-dumping planes and the work of several dozen firefighters had managed to protect Olympia's archeological treasures and the stadium ruins where the Games began in 776 BC.

"We don't know exactly how much damage there is in the Olympia area, but the important thing is that the museum is as it was and the archeological site will not have any problem," Culture Minister George Voulgarakis, who rushed to the scene to oversee the handling of the emergency, told the Associated Press.

In Greece's southwestern Peloponnese peninsula, where the fires have wreaked their most devastating damage, flames moved to within two miles of the Temple of Apollo Epikourios, a 500 BC monument near the town of Andritsaina.

"We are trying to save the Temple of Apollo, as well as Andritsaina itself," Mayor Tryphon Athanassopoulos told Greek television.

Most of the people killed in Greece's worst fires in decades were burned to death as they tried to flee, trapped in their cars or in charred fields. Five people were killed Sunday when a new fire ignited on the island of Euboea, north of Athens.

New fires were erupting even as others were brought under control, leaving many Greeks feeling defenseless -- and angry.

"War -- Greece Under Attack," read the banner headline in one newspaper.

The fire disaster could have political consequences for the government of Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, which has been criticized for responding too sluggishly and which faces snap elections on Sept. 16.

Karamanlis, speaking in a national address, indicated that he suspected arson. The outbreak of scores of fires over one-third of Greece in a 48-hour period "cannot be a coincidence," he said.

Police had arrested four people so far on suspicion of arson, Reuters news service reported.

Whipped up by gale-force winds, the fires have been abetted by high temperatures and drought-like conditions. More than 500 homes and businesses have been destroyed, along with vast swaths of forest and farmland.

"We are dealing with a national catastrophe without precedent," firefighters spokesman Nikolaos Diamantis said Sunday.

Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Rome and a special correspondent in Athens contributed to this report, and Times wires services were used in compiling it.

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