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Fishermen joined rescue mission as people fleeing Greek fires headed into sea

Tawefik Halil and other fishermen joined the recovery effort.

A fisherman has described venturing into choppy seas to rescue people who fled to the coast as wildfires ravaged Greece.

Tawefik Halil and other fishermen responded to the overwhelmed Greek coast guard’s urgent call for help as the deadliest wildfires in decades raged through seaside resorts near Athens.

Mr Halil, 42, was among dozens of volunteers who helped save hundreds of people stranded on beaches and in the choppy waters, buffeted by gale-force winds.

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Egyptian fisherman Halil Tawefik on his boat in Rafina port (Thanassis Stavrakis/AP)

“It was chaos, do you understand? Do you know what it’s like to be in all that smoke, not being able to see anything and to have people asking for help?” Mr Halil told the Associated Press.

The fire razed holiday resorts east of Athens and killed at least 79 people. But more than 700 survivors were rescued by boat and taken to the port of Rafina.

Mr Halil said he does not remember how many people he helped save, but he and the others did what they could as they plucked young and old from the water.

“You can’t see anything in the smoke and fire — so much fire and so much smoke. There was so much wind,” he said. “We could not breathe. I almost fainted at some point from all the smoke, and it was very difficult, my friend, it was so difficult. I have never seen such a difficult thing before.”

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Members of rescue team search a burned house in Mati, east of Athens (Thanassis Stavrakis/AP)

Many people on the beaches were forced to swim out due to the ferocity of the fire, Mr Halil said.

“The people got trapped: behind them fire and in front of them the sea. What can they do? They got into the sea,” he said.

The people in the water ranged in age from eight to 70, he said, some clustered together and all pleading for help.

“There were all these people in the water, some knew how to swim and some didn’t,” he said.

“Those that could swim, we saved them. The other ones that did not know how to swim, we do not know if they are there, if they are alive and what happened. No one knows. But what we could do, we did.”

Mr Halil, an Egyptian who has been living in Greece and working as a fisherman for two decades, said it was his second time dealing with a humanitarian disaster; the first was helping to rescue Syrian migrants after their flimsy boat capsized off the Greek island of Chios in 2015.

It was not all good news for the fishermen helping with this week’s rescue. Mr Halil said his friend’s boat pulled out a body.

“It’s a tragic thing,” he said. “I still can’t believe what happened, honestly.”

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