'People fighting to get onto boats and children falling in the sea': Inside Brits' evacuation from wildfire-hit Rhodes

24 July 2023, 11:56 | Updated: 24 July 2023, 12:19

Wildfires have been raging in Greece
Wildfires have been raging in Greece. Picture: Getty/Alamy

By Kit Heren

A British woman has described the chaos in Rhodes as desperate tourists struggle to escape the wildfires ravaging the Greek island.

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Thousands of British tourists have been caught in Rhodes and Corfu, with the flames spreading across the idyllic tourist destinations during the searing Mediterranean heatwave.

Evacuations have begun and flights rescuing British holidaymakers in Rhodes have begun arriving in the UK. But tourists have reported chaos on the beaches as people waited to be evacuated from the islands by sea.

Amy Leyden, a British tourist, said she didn't think she, her partner and two-year-old child were going to survive their ordeal in Rhodes.

They were rescued from their hotel by police before it collapsed. "We just had to keep running and then the fire was getting closer and it was getting harder to breathe," she said.

They were picked up by a local man, who drove them to the beach, where they found an "awful" sight, she told Sky News.

"The army was waiting but everyone was fighting to get onto the boats, there were children falling in the water." They have since been evacuated.

Read more: First rescue flights from fire-ravaged Rhodes arrive back in the UK as Brits forced to flee in mass evacuation

Read more: 'Don't stop, just run!' British holidaymaker's terrifying tale of running from Rhodes wildfires

Andrew Mitchell: 'That is a deplorable state of affairs...'

Amid the chaos, Brits have been sleeping on beaches and in temporary accommodation like schools, sports stadiums and the airport.

There have been complaints that they have been abandoned by travel reps, with nowhere to go and without transportation.

Some operators failed to contact British families who were left walking up to 12 hours in heat of almost 40C on Rhodes.

Read more: Corfu evacuation order issued after flights to Rhodes cancelled leaving terrified Brits fleeing raging wildfires

Foreign Office minister Andrew Mitchell told LBC's Nick Ferrari at Breakfast: "That is a deplorable state of affairs.

"We will be investigating all of that. I think it's important to make the point that virtually all the tour operators and holiday companies have sprung into action in the proper way and I hope that will continue."

He said that only about 10% of the island was affected by the blaze.

A burnt car sits in foreground of a charred area after a fire near the village of Kiotari, on the Greek island of Rhodes
A burnt car sits in foreground of a charred area after a fire near the village of Kiotari, on the Greek island of Rhodes. Picture: Getty

Holiday operator Jet2 said three repatriation flights to return hundreds of holidaymakers from Rhodes are planned on Monday evening. The company said a flight, carrying 95 people, landed at Leeds Bradford late on Sunday evening.

In addition to over 50 scheduled flights, one flight will depart for Manchester, another for Leeds Bradford and a third for Birmingham later on Monday.

A spokesperson said: "We understand how difficult this experience has been for many, and our entire focus is on looking after our customers. We have a significantly expanded presence in Rhodes, with a huge team of experienced colleagues providing all the support we can for our customers, whether that is in affected areas or at Rhodes Airport.

"We have also put on three repatriation flights to bring our customers home, which is on top of our scheduled programme of flights that will continue to operate from Rhodes to the UK this week. We are continuing to make decisions in the best interests of our customers, and we are keeping everything under constant review."

Fellow tour operator Tui has said holidaymakers have returned to the UK from Rhodes on "three dedicated flights".

It said in a statement: "We're now working hard to get everybody home safely, with our first passengers returning to the UK on three dedicated flights overnight and plans in place to get everyone affected back as soon as possible.

"We appreciate how distressing and difficult it's been for those who have been evacuated and ask that they continue to follow the advice of the local authorities and keep in touch with the Tui reps who are present in all evacuation centres. Our teams will be contacting customers with any updates as soon as they can.

Flames burn a hill on Rhodes
Flames burn a hill on Rhodes. Picture: Alamy

"We have cancelled all outbound flights to Rhodes up to and including Tuesday, and passengers due to travel on these flights will receive full refunds.

"Passengers due to travel on Wednesday will be offered a fee-free amend to another holiday or the option to cancel for a full refund.

"We are still operating flights to bring those customers currently on holiday elsewhere in Rhodes home as planned.

"The safety and wellbeing of our customers and teams remains our top priority."

Airline Easyjet is also laying on at least three repatriation flights on Monday and Tuesday, as well as regular scheduled trips to the UK.

Rishi Sunak urged people to try to stay in touch with their holiday operator.

The PM said: "My paramount priority is the safety of British nationals, that's why the Deputy Prime Minister chaired a Cobra meeting yesterday - he's been monitoring the situation closely.

"The most important thing is people remain in touch with their tour operators, there are lots of flights going back and forth to be able to bring people home, and if people are in touch with their tour operators they will get the information that they need."

Greece said its evacuation mission is the largest in its history.

Blazes have already seen hundreds evacuated in the Athens area, where fires are still raging to the west of the capital, and on Evia and Corfu.

Holidaymakers are taken away on boats and over land and put into temporary accommodation elsewhere, some without food or water.

Evacuations are under way
Evacuations are under way. Picture: Alamy

In total, about 30,000 people have been moved in an operation supported by the Greek army.

One holidaymaker described the horror of fleeing the fires to LBC.

Narrissa Sketchley said she had to flee in Rhodes after she saw white ash drop from the sky on Thursday evening, then thick black clouds formed as helicopters came to pour water over the blaze.

Read more: 'Travel companies must not fail' to help holidaymakers stranded in Rhodes and Corfu amid swathe of wildfires

Greece has described its operation as the largest evacuation in its history
Greece has described its operation as the largest evacuation in its history. Picture: Alamy

The hotel staff told her to stay put until the Greek government texted them.

"There was no one there to tell us or advise us," she said.

She told Nick "next thing we know there is someone there shouting 'go, go, go' and we ran out of the hotel door and just to the left of us there were red hot flames".

Narrissa said she was told to take her family and flee to the beach.

"We got to the first beach and sat on sunbeds, but there were thick black clouds and ash coming down.

"As soon as we sat on the sunbed we were told not to and told 'run, run, run," Narissa said.

She had to run over "four or five beaches" but with little direction from officials.

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