Mahmoud al-Sayed Mousa was relaxing on his couch when his phone rang at 6:30pm on July 23, from his boss who told him to “come quickly” as wildfires started burning the coastal village of Mati, where people desperately tried to escape to the sea.
The 46-year-old Egyptian fisherman immediately rushed out of his home and within minutes arrived at the port in Nea Makri, where the fishing vessel was docked, and he set sail with his boss.
“We heard that 150 people were trapped between the fire and the sea…It was the hardest moment. If we entered the smoke, we could die. If we didn’t enter, the people wouldn’t be saved.” he recalls.
Forceful waves swayed the boat, and the wind carried the thick black smog out to sea, but they carried on, coughing more and more the closer they got to Mati’s shores. Red rescue helicopters also hovered above.
Mahmoud filmed the ordeal on his mobile and also posted videos on his Facebook, saying “We are going to save the people fleeing the fire…We either bring them back with us or we die with them, God willing.”
In his 30 years in Greece, he said he has never witnessed anything as frightening as the wildfires.
The smell of burned wood overwhelmed Mahmoud and through the hazy fog, he heard the muffled cries of women and children. He covered his mouth and nose with a cloth to try and limit the fumes he was inhaling.
As the sound of people pleading for help grew closer, Mahmoud knotted a rope and flung it into the sea. Someone grabbed on, and he pulled a man in and lifted him up onto the vessel.
Mahmoud remembers “we scooped them up like when we’re fishing…people were crying and shaking while they hugged us.” By the time it was over, they had saved 23 Greek people and four dogs, he estimates, taking the survivors back to dry land in Nea Marki.
The efforts of rescue teams, the coastguard, and others resulted in more than 700 people being saved.
To date, Greek authorities say 25 people are still missing and at least 91 people have died; either burned alive, drowned or by smoke inhalation.
Although rattled by the tragedy, Mahmoud said “I’m happy I was part of the reason those people were saved … It was our duty to help.”
Source: Al Jazeera News
Image: Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera