A burnt house in Mati, east of Athens, Friday, July 27, 2018. Greek authorities said Thursday there were serious indications that a deadly wildfire that gutted a vacation resort near Athens was started deliberately, while experts warned that the devastated coastal town had been built like a "fire trap," with poor safety standards and few escape routes. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Forensics experts work on identifying the dead in Greek fire

July 27, 2018 - 7:33 am

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — The head of the Athens Forensics Department says all autopsies on the dozens of people who died in Greece's deadliest wildfire in decades have been completed, although the identification process continues.

Nikos Karakoukis said coroners had completed autopsies on 86 bodies. It was the first indication the death toll had increased, as the official figure provided by the fire service still stood at 83.

Many of the dead were burned beyond recognition and the identification procedure, relying on DNA samples from relatives, is expected to take several days to be completed.

Germany's federal criminal police has sent a team of its forensics specialists to help in the process. The team members have worked on major disasters, including the 2004 Asian tsunami and a 2002 midair collision of a Russian charter flight and a DHL cargo plane over southern Germany that killed 71 people.

Rescue crews continued a house-by-house search of the burnt area northeast of Athens near the port of Rafina while coast guard and volunteer divers scoured the sea for any other potential victims.

As the fire raged, whipped by ferocious winds, hundreds of people sought refuge on nearby beaches. But the intensity of the heat and the dense smoke forced many to swim out to sea. Rescue came hours later, and at least six of the victims were people who drowned.

Authorities have said there were serious indications the fire had been started deliberately. However, the local mayor of Penteli, where the fire started, has said he believes the blaze was triggered accidentally from electrical cables.

"That is my opinion, because I saw the cables on the pylon burning," said Dimitris Stergiou Kapsalis.

The blaze was the second wildfire to have struck near Athens on Monday. When it broke out in the afternoon, most firefighting resources were already engaged in tackling a much larger blaze to the west of the Greek capital. Although that one also burnt homes, it caused no casualties.

Recriminations have mounted about how authorities handled the deadly fire and why no evacuation was ordered. Public Order Minister Nikos Toskas defended the response to the emergency in a news conference Thursday night.

"I am trying for reasons of conscience to find mistakes ... but operationally I can't find major mistakes," he said.

Rafina Mayor Evangelos Bournous said an evacuation wouldn't have been an option.

"They speak of an evacuation plan. How can an evacuation plan be implemented on a settlement (built) outside of town planning, which cannot have places for people to gather," he said.

"The evacuation plan was that everyone tried to leave all together and they got trapped on the coastal road."

Authorities have said the fire, whose heat was such that it turned car tire hub caps into rivulets of molten metal, moved with such speed that ordering the evacuation of the area could have resulted in even more casualties.

The worst affected area was Mati, a seaside town of holiday homes and permanent residences which experts have said was built like a "fire trap," with houses built among pine trees, narrow streets, numerous dead ends and access to the sea hampered by cliffs.

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