‘People were sent into the path of a firestorm’
"WHEN Greece burns, we feel the heat."
That's what Bill Papastergiadis told me when I met him in the devastated sea side town of Mati for a Dateline report. The "we" he is referring to is the Melbourne Greek community.
Bill was in Greece to distribute $200,000 raised by the community to the survivors of the fire that engulfed the small holiday town in July this year.
He remembers the Black Saturday fires 9 years ago. Melbourne was 46 degrees that day and clouded in a haze of smoke as ferocious 100km winds picked up. With a death toll of 173, that day came to be known as one of the darkest days in Australia's peacetime history. The conditions were eerily similar to Mati. Extreme heat, high winds, underlying drought, and an incredibly fast moving fire.
"I remember it being almost overcast from the strength of the breeze and the heat - and I thought to myself this is not going to be a good day. Things have changed fundamentally since that day," recalls Bill of Black Saturday. "For Greek Australians, there is almost an umbilical connection to the mother land. Pain felt in Greece, we felt that immediately in Australia."
Bill was on a mission, and he invited me along. Meeting the volunteer firefighters, the local authorities now caught up in the quest for answers as to what went wrong, and the people who'd lost their homes and loved ones.
Most shocking was the day volunteer firefighter Michalis Tsiougris took us to the spot where 26 people had perished.
He showed us remains of someone propped up on one arm, his other was stretched out in front of him reaching for something.
It was a man making one last desperate effort to protect his two granddaughters from the flames. The fire had been so intense all three bodies were frozen in their last moments of life like the mummified corpses of Pompei. The girls, 7 and 9, died hugging each other.
They were among 26 people whose bodies were found huddled together just metres from the sea in Mati, just some of the nearly 100 people who perished in the deadliest fire of this century after Australia's Black Saturday.
The images are important because they showed how quickly this fire moved and how intense its heat. It had started around 4.40pm in the mountains above the village, possibly when a man decided to burn off some wood.
It was already about 40 degrees and unusually strong winds from the west quickly caught the fire, driving it down the hills largely through the tops of the highly flammable pine trees among which generations had built and developed their holiday homes.
There had been fires here before but due to the predominately strong sea breeze they had never come further down the hills than a major four lane highway called Marathonis Avenue. This is apparently what people in their homes in Mati and the fire brigade chiefs observing the fire from a helicopter also believed, as the firestorm raced towards the avenue.
The lack of an official warning or evacuation order is something that's hard to fathom. Of all the many things that locals in Mati are upset about - it is that lack of a single warning to flee that angers them most.
Frantic calls for help and evacuation were going out - none were heeded. The fire quickly crossed Marathonis and raced through Mati catching dozens unaware. This was made worse when police stationed on Marathonis started directing cars down the narrow streets away from the Avenue through Mati towards the sea - dozens more were trapped as vehicles from all directions got jammed at the narrow intersections - right in to the path of the oncoming firestorm.
More than fifty people died because they had been sent down there in their cars. Totally smothered in smoke and just metres from a fire so intense it burnt your skin before you even saw the flames. Some tried to run for what they thought was the direction of the sea.
Among them were that group of 26, including the man and his two granddaughters who were overcome by the heat and flames just metres from the waves.
In Australia, it's easy to take for granted that the officials in charge will save us, tell us what to do and where to go, that we will be protected. But it took a Royal Commission after Black Saturday, for some of Australia's most lifesaving strategies - such as text message warnings - to become the norm.
It's awful to think that it might take nearly 100 deaths in Greece for the same changes to occur there - but it's even worse to think that nothing will change. In a country beset by debt and corruption, the jury is still out on whether the next fire in Greece will be managed better.
Watch Dateline's report From Melbourne to Mati on SBS, Tuesday, October 30 at 9.30pm, or after broadcast via SBS On Demand.
Evan Williams is a journalist and documentary filmmaker.