“Τί μας βρήκε”  

(“What found us” a Greek expression)

After the fires that destroyed Mati on Monday July 23, and claimed the lives of 97 confirmed victims, people talked for weeks of what went wrong, what could have happened, what did happen. I knew people who knew people who died. Someone I would nod to in the hallways at work, a familiar face, died. A lot of animals died. A lot of trees burned. I took notes, hardly able to process the tragedy. I live a 15-20 minute drive away. This is what I did w/ my notes:

IMG_9922Mati

You’ll go to yoga after buying a kilo of apricots

They’re going for a euro a kilo at the end of today’s market day, Monday

At 2p.m., the vendors are hawking the cheapest prices, and the winds are manic

Sometime in the middle of the night

You wake to the charred-air smell, feral winds — somewhere there’s a fire

Sometime in the middle of the night the sound of a text message on your cell —

“MATI!!!”

You’ve made it a habit of not watching the news, so you hear it this way or rather

You smell it

See it too — the sky’s diffused early morning orange

*

In the pharmacy someone is gesturing, when we start thinking of

Our televisions & houses, we’ve lost everything! And the pharmacist nods

Her products are overpriced but she agrees with the gesticulating man,

Says her father said first the neighbor then my family

At work people’s office doors are open (those still at work since it’s July)

Here you hear the Business Dean’s assistant is missing

Someone in the library made it to the water, saved hours later

There were boats from Rafina, Rafina wasn’t burning

You see the images from your desktop, the dog that looks sad

On his rock, all the dogs, all the cats — the rodents, the caterpillars, all

The worms you imagine burned, so you leave your desk, tell your Dean

You’re going to see if you can find any animals alive

 

And she says, do you plan to do bring them all back to your apartment?

You don’t know. You just leave. You buy dry dog and cat food, and 12 bottles of water

*

The once-blue road signs are burnt blank, some heat-bloated like caricatured letters,

The earth’s smoking. You park the car on the roadside, a church in front of you

 

Further on, police removing roadblocks, you keep going on Marathonas,

Then turn — the stench in your throat, see the carcass of cars on a side street

You have a melon with you, cat and dog food, and 12 bottles of water

*

An older woman was looking at me. She was walking down the side street, or crossing & re-crossing from one side to the next, as I was moving slowly in the car

She came to my side talking in mid-sentence, gesturing, … all picked up, he hasn’t Stopped but all the cuttings were sitting in the streets… It was that time we prune —

Everything was piled up now he’s picking it up… we left and repeated, as if I had not heard her, we left. The house is okay but we left it. We had some awnings

For the children so they wouldn’t be under the sun, those are gone… I nodded, moved on up the street back to Marathonas, waved as she continued down the street

There were no animals, the sky still grey, smoke-hazed

There had been no alert

No church bells

No alarm

No sirens

No warning

… Oh my god our arrogance!

*

Later I listen to the news, endless interviews, the mayor of Marathonas, the head of the fire brigade, the head of the fire fighter volunteers: It could have been

Stopped & not cost a single life had it been caught in Kalitechnoupolis — some addled man was burning trash, he was always burning trash, but it was the winds that day

Their direction, a lack of communication. It could have been stopped if water had been dumped on that trash. The winds were going at 80 kilometers…

Planes couldn’t fly to dump water… The winds kept changing direction… Her husband called from Rafina to say the fire was in Voutsa; she was in Mati with their son, her

mother too, the police were now on the Marathonas road directing traffic toward the seacoast as the flames came down the mountain, as they reached Marathonas

Skipped the asphalt at 80 kilometers an hour, maybe at 100, who knows, cars jamming

the side streets into Mati, trees burning houses burning streets burning people screaming burning

*

People can’t stop talking about what happened —

When will we understand our houses and TVs won’t save us?

This State…

Why weren’t people evacuated?

It went so fast

Of course there was no rain when we needed it…

Now the rain floods Marathonas, mud slush coming down the burnt hillsides, ash, dead branches, debris

Now is all about what went wrong

The mayor in his ironed white shirt, his loosened black tie looked like he’d come out of a club when they interviewed him that night

Speaking fast he was saying no none, no human effort, could keep up w/ the pace of the winds, though police had misjudged

Sent traffic into the jammed streets of Mati, smoke-blinded, gagging, people were screaming, some left their cars, trying to find the sea

Did your house burn too? The reporter asks, and the mayor w/ longish hair laughs Of course it burned, thankfully it burned!

Thankfully? Asks the reporter, Yes thankfully, the mayor gives another short laugh, Otherwise, they’d think I started the fires

 *

 I can’t talk about this anymore, someone says at work

At work we’re not talking about it

It being the fact of Katia, that she had most likely died in the fire with her 21 year old son, her mother and husband

Still missing — someone went to check the hospitals — any news? I ask tentatively

No news. No news… the person in the Xerox room is almost dismissive

She was probably in that group of 26, huddled together in the lot, meters from the sea

 I don’t remember who said it but it was finally said

Like Pompeii, a friend writes from the States. Like Pompeii families were caught, with minutes to decide — even seconds weren’t enough

A young 13-year old athlete jumped hoping she’d find the sea but it was a cliff

A grandparent taking care of the two grandchildren, babies really, wrapped them in wet cloths and gave them quickly to someone I’m staying with him she said

And pointed to her husband who was too old to run

A man with a dog who had just given birth tried to get them out of the house but the dog wouldn’t move, so he went down into a basement room, and waited

And lived

There are people so much more important than any of us, says Elina days later, days later the stories accumulate, we hear too of a young husband who grabbed his child

out of the car

And ran

And left his young wife behind

You mean he didn’t even grab her hand? We watch him on TV the day after looking at a metal carcass on the side of a charred street, expressionless

*

The air is still acrid. I was looking for what might be alive

Found a still-live electrical wire, the wood column like a smoldering match

Wind siphons its sound through the stripped trees

The silence had a color and smell

The only body that seemed to be moving

IMG_9924Mati

*

Days after

The hot water on my hand the burnt shrimp in the oven the closeness of the pine branches to my balcony the wait for the elevator in the basement the low-ceilings of the ferry the smell of the grill the press of people in the corridor the heat the heat the heat the heat of anything near my skin… has me weeping

It changes you, someone says, these situations, these fucking situations

The words brittle, charged, sometimes impossible, sometimes matter-of-fact, as in the words of the young husband who said, I didn’t look back, his expression blank but for the — on his back the child he grabbed, placed on his shoulders & swam & swam & swam & was finally saved. But not his — she was — where he didn’t — back where the fire would have burned —

*

Today

It’s the volunteer with the bad teeth I think of, the small animal she described in the midst of the empty landscape, it came running to us and I cupped some water in my palm for it, then it ran off, confused. It was trembling, that small, tiny thing looking for some life, some way to survive

 9 days later

People in the cafés in Rafina are talking about it

What if it had been a Sunday?

What if it had happened at night, & everyone was sleeping…

Because it happened in the late afternoon, on a Monday

Because it was as tragic as it was

What if

The man who had called his wife had said leave! instead of going to find them in his car, what if they had not gone into three cars, and tried to leave in those streets, they

In that group of 26, caught in the flames, hugging

What if

The government had warned people, all those churches, someone says, in the villages we ring the bells

What if

The man had not grabbed A’s arm, and said Not that way, you’ll burn & separated her from K, who did burn

Alexandra wants to throw a rock at the television

What if someone took some responsibility for once! These ministers are so cynical, no one even cried!

What if the state had actually used the alert they bought after the 2007 fires in Zacharo, what if people got an SMS, which would have cost nothing?

*

A reporter was talking to a homeowner in one of the destroyed yards. I was in my car. I’d just spoken to the woman who kept crossing and re-crossing the street

The yard was charred and a young guy, maybe the owner’s son, was cutting away at the black stems of what had been a garden, he looked at me and I looked at him

And then I drove away

 IMG_9921Mati

 

 

 

 

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About akalfopoulou

Author of three poetry collections, a book of essays, Ruin, Essays in Exilic Living, and most recently, A History of Too Much (Red Hen Press 2018).
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One Response to “Τί μας βρήκε”  

  1. Powerful quotes and indeed same issues of lack of communication and all happening within 2 hours from others I’ve interviewed and soon to write about one family’s preparation and ultimately saving their home, family, animals (article coming soon). Meanwhile please read with emphasis on 2nd half of post and share this from a “preventative” standpoint
    https://healthliteracyweb.com/2018/08/06/ashes-to-ashes-tragedy-befalls-us/

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