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Death toll rises to 91 in deadly Greece wildfire

MATI, Greece — Fire officials in Greece raised the death toll from a wildfire that raged through a coastal area east of Athens to 91 and reported that 25 people were missing Sunday, six days after Europe's deadliest forest fire in more than a century.

Before the national fire service updated the official number of fatalities, it stood at 86 as hundreds of mourners attended a Sunday morning memorial service for the victims in the seaside village hardest-hit by the blaze.

The fire sped flames through the village of Mati without warning on July 23. A database maintained by the Centre for the Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters in Brussels shows it as the deadliest wildfire in Europe since 1900.

The vast majority of victims died in the fire itself, though a number drowned in the sea while fleeing the flames. Until Sunday night, Greek officials had not provided a tally of the people reported missing.

The senior local Greek Orthodox Church official, Bishop Kyrillos, presided over the memorial service at Dormition of the Virgin Mary Church in Mati, a popular resort spot that was the place hardest-hit by the blaze that killed at least 86 people. Kyrillos said the community was mourning the loss of family, neighbors and friends.

greek wildfires
Burnt out motorbikes and houses are cordoned off at the seaside resort of Mati, in the eastern Attica region after the deadly fires swept the area earlier in the week on July 27, 2018. Getty

"There's fewer of us now than usually, the bishop said. "It is the victims of the recent fire that are missing — friends, relatives and acquaintances, next-door people that we saw every day in town and on the beach.

Maria Nikolaou, 74, began cleaning up on this week after the fast-moving wildfire tore through her neighborhood. Her car was gutted, and in minutes, her whole neighborhood was consumed.

"Trees were falling everywhere, I was so scared," she told CBS News. But still she had to be forced to flee her neighborhood.

Her son, Dimitris Gaveras, worries his mom would've died there had he not forced her to flee to the beach. "I took my mother by force," he said.

Another resident said she narrowly managed to escape the fire that killed others in their cars and homes. "I came to pray for the people who were lost and I pray that God blesses us all," Angeliki Galiatsatou said.

Dozens of volunteer divers, some of them retired Navy Seals, kept searching the sea off Mati on Sunday looking for the bodies of more possible victims.

Greek authorities have said they have reason to believe the fire resulted from arson and turned so deadly because winds of up to 100 kilometers per hour, or 62 mph, buffeted the pine-forested seaside resorts at the time.

greek wildfires
A man clears his damaged house in the village of Neos Voutzas, near Athens, on July 28, 2018, after Greece's worst wildfires killed 88, many of them children, on July 23. Getty

The Greek government also has come under criticism for how buildings and roads were laid out in the area and an alleged lack of adequate preparation for fire season. More than 2,000 homes were damaged in the fire and roughly a quarter will have to be demolished, Greek officials said Friday.

The Holy Synod made up of all Greek bishops said in a letter read out loud at Sunday's memorial service that everyone bears responsibility for protecting the environment from haphazard development.

"What words of comfort can you offer the person who has lost their father, their mother, the grandparents in whose arms their grandchildren were found?" Kyrillos said. "What words of solace can you offer a mother who has lost her baby and left a few flowers on the beach?"

Seth Doane contributed to this report.

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