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Facing menacing flames, some chose to stay, fight

For days, Grecians used any means -- buckets of water, wet towels -- to save their properties.

September 02, 2007|Elena Becatoros | The Associated Press

ARTEMIDA, GREECE — A 77-year-old mother of a firefighter saved her home by dousing it with buckets of water. A man battled flames threatening his hotel with wet towels. With any and all means, villagers and volunteers fought the flames that ravaged southern Greece for a week and claimed 64 lives.

As Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis promised Friday to rebuild all homes destroyed in the blazes, saying, "The fight is not yet over," residents of Greece's southern Peloponnese peninsula shared their struggles to try to save their lives and properties while the fires raged all around them.

Her home in danger

Theoni Kostandopoulou could see the flames coming toward her village of Artemida from across the distant hills. Many people fled the village -- and some died.

But Kostandopoulou stayed, using a small plastic bucket to splash water on her house and a pile of firewood throughout the night.

"The young left and the old stayed behind," the firefighter's mother, 77, said.

"I sat here, on this cinder block, all night," she said. Every so often, she would walk to the village spring and fill a container with water from the tap, battling through the smoke to drag it back to her house.

Then she would dip her plastic bucket in the water and fling it on her house. Over and over.

"What could I do? Dragging the water along, I went back and forth, back and forth, from the night to the morning," she recalled.

"My eyes filled up with blood, my lungs with smoke. I threw up from the smoke. Now my body is dead tired."

The grapes on the vines overhanging her balcony withered from the heat. The house across the street burned. She lost her olive and fruit trees, as well as her vegetable garden on the outskirts of the village. But she saved her home.

Fear was not an issue, she said.

"And what if I was afraid? What choice did I have?"

Together, they fought

In the village of Andritsaina, a wind-whipped wall of flames sped down the hill toward Savas Angelopoulos' new hotel, devouring the forest and sending burning embers flying through the air.

There were no fire trucks, no water-dropping planes, no helicopters. Angelopoulos and his family were alone.

Still, they managed to beat back the fire -- with wet towels and buckets.

"We fought like lions, as a family, with a handful of friends," Angelopoulos said. "For three days and nights, we stayed and fought. Now I'm so tired I can barely stand up."

Angelopoulos and his wife, Chriso Parastatidou, stood to loose everything. They had thrown all their money into building the Apollonion Hotel -- and had no fire insurance.

"If you knew what I went through," Parastatidou said. "Seeing the fire and seeing we will be left in the street, and in debt too."

They gathered all the hotel's towels, drenched them in water and used them to beat at the flames. A friend brought a small water truck, and with the few hotel guests who had not fled, they formed a chain, passing buckets to toss on the fire.

"The buckets were moving like lightning," Parastatidou said. "The hands moved so fast."

Angelopoulos thought he was going to die when flames leaped from a tree straight at him. He dove to the ground, and the flames passed above him, burning some of his hair.

The fire left blackened stumps of trees and charred earth to the edge of the hotel garden. But fear remains.

Angelopoulos no longer sleeps indoors. He has moved a cot outside -- that way, if the fire comes again, he will be ready.

He arrived too late

It didn't take long for the fire to reach the picturesque mountain village of Makistos.

"You could see the smoke, then the flames," said Maria Pothos, who spent her summers in Makistos with her brother, visiting their father. "In three minutes, it was in the village. . . . There was an incredible wind."

Her father, Aristogeiton Pothos, had gone to the nearby seaside town of Zaharo. When he heard about the fire, he raced back to try to save his home, but the police had blocked the road. They eventually let him through, but by then, it was too late.

"When I came, it was burning," Pothos said. "Everything was burning. It was like the sky was upside down. You couldn't see the sky because of the smoke; you looked down [the valley] and everywhere, small fires burned like stars."

This spring, he had finished building an extension to his house, which dates from Ottoman rule in the 18th century.

Now, there was nothing left. The roof caved in, leaving shattered tiles lying in piles on the ground. The wooden floor burned, the sink shattered, the windows melted. Only the gray stone walls remained. Of about 65 houses in Makistos, about 40 to 50 burned down that day.

But despite the destruction, Maria Pothos was grateful.

"It could have been worse," she said. "We could have died."

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