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Postmortem examinations on dozens killed in Greece wildfires 'completed'

A burnt house in Mati, east of Athens. Experts said the devastated coastal town had been built like a "fire trap," with poor safety standards and few escape routes PICTURE: Thanassis Stavrakis, AP
Costas Kantouris

THE head of the Athens forensics department has said all postmortem examinations on the dozens of people who died in Greece's wildfires have been completed, although the identification process continues.

Newly married Brian O'Callaghan-Westropp from Co Meath died as he and his wife Zoe became separated trying to escape the fires after they were caught up in the disaster while on honeymoon.

Nikos Karakoukis said coroners had completed postmortem examinations on 86 bodies – despite the official death toll standing at 83.

The discrepancy was due to forensic tests revealing the remains of three extra people, Mr Karakoukis said. The revelation was an indication of the intensity of the fire's heat, which melted the metal hub caps off cars.

"There are parts of bones that are attributed to three people, so the number increases to 86," Mr Karakoukis said.

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 the 2002 mid-air 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 north-east 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.

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

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 on Thursday night.

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

Rafina mayor Evangelos Bournous said an evacuation would not 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 tyre 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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