A mother who says she experienced “hell on earth” was among British tourists forced to leave Rhodes this weekend as fierce wildfires continue to rage across the Greek resort island.
Officials on the island, which lies southwest of Turkey in the Aegean Sea, launched Greece’s biggest evacuation operation ever as the fire ravaged vast swathes of land and threatened resort towns popular with holidaymakers.
Tourists have been forced to seek shelter in schools, sports stadiums, airports and alternative hotels while firefighters struggled desperately to contain the blazes, which could worsen on Monday as wind speeds more than double on the island, officials fear.
As Brits rushed to book seats on crowded flights home after the evacuations, tour operators including Jet2, the UK’s largest tour operator, announced they were canceling flights to Rhodes and sending empty planes to bring stranded tourists home.
EasyJet airline said it would operate repatriation flights to bring stranded British holidaymakers home. Two rescue flights are planned for Monday and a third for Tuesday, it said.
Greek authorities also urged people in some parts of Corfu to evacuate due to further forest fires on Sunday evening.
In total, around 19,000 people are said to have been evacuated from Rhodes, the largest of Greece’s Dodecanese islands, which is home to around 115,000 people.
Becky Mulligan, a 29-year-old training leader from Leicester, was staying at the Princess Sun Hotel in the Kiotari resort on the south-east coast of Rhodes when she, her five-year-old daughter and her 20-year-old sister were forced to rush to pack their bags and flee when the sky turned ‘orange’.
“Smoke was rising against the hotel window, so we decided to flee,” she said The Independent. “Helicopters hovered overhead and shook the whole building.
“We ended up trailing our legs down a dirt path as smoke billowed around our legs. i thought i was going to die It was like hell on earth.”
Ms Mulligan and her family were forced to take refuge on the beach while waiting for buses to come and pick them up, in what she described as the “scaryest part”.
She said hundreds of people were waiting to be evacuated while adult adults were “basically stomping on children to get to the buses”. The trio were then taken to the Gennadi Grande Resort and from there bussed to another location where they had to spend the Saturday night on the floor of a hotel room.
They managed to escape safely on Sunday morning and shared a taxi with another family to the airport, where they were due to fly back to the UK after 11pm.
Dan Jones, a PE teacher from Torquay, Devon, said he had to climb onto a fishing trawler with his sons on Saturday night and described it as “the scariest moment of my entire life”, adding: “What brave boys.”
Ian Wakefield narrated Times Radio He spent the night in a schoolyard in Faliraki after being evacuated from his hotel in Pefki.
He said: “It didn’t really feel real – the imminent threat of being burned. Between midnight and about 5am we experienced an evacuation that was quite chaotic.
“There were a lot of upset people and kids who were understandably quite hysterical. It was all very confusing – the hotel manager’s instructions were unclear.
“In the end you had to make your own decision. I had to leave quite a lot of luggage at the hotel.”
As firefighters struggled to contain the fires and thick black smoke continued to billow into the sky, British tour operators began canceling flights to Rhodes, although some planes landed on the island Saturday night and early Sunday morning despite the emergency.
Jet2 Holidays has canceled all flights to the island until July 30 and said it will send empty planes to bring stranded Britons home, while Tui has said it will cancel all flights and public holidays until Tuesday.
Thomas Cook later announced it had canceled all travel to Kiotari and Lardos – the island’s most vulnerable areas – through July 31 and would be in touch with customers to arrange a “quick refund”. Full refunds will also be offered to customers who are traveling to other parts of the island on Sunday and Monday and wish to cancel their trip.
However, some holidaymakers suggested that operators should have canceled flights to the island earlier.
Lowri Jones, from Crymych, Pembrokeshire, Wales, described scenes of “chaos” at Rhodes Airport when she arrived there on Saturday night. The 52-year-old mother-of-one traveled to the Greek island with her 13-year-old daughter for a holiday.
“It was absolute chaos at the airport, with long lines of people trying to find out which bus it was,” she said The Independent. “We booked with Tui and there was very little communication from them.
“We were supposed to be staying at the Atlantica Dreams Hotel in Gennady, but due to the forest fires we were – without warning – driven to a completely different resort in the north of the island.”
She added: “My daughter and I ended up spending the night with other people on the floor in a room with no air conditioning in the sweltering heat — it was awful.”
“To be honest, I don’t think we should have been there at all. The flight was delayed because the fires required the pilot to conduct a risk assessment to determine if it was safe to land.
“Tui should have told us it wasn’t safe and refunded us – at least that way I could have decided to book elsewhere.” Now I’m stranded in Rhodes and have to worry about booking flights home.”
A Tui spokesman said they continue to monitor the wildfires and welcome the “worrying and difficult” situation for their customers.
Anyone staying in Rhodes is urged to “follow the advice of the local authorities who manage tourist traffic in the affected areas,” it said.
The British ambassador to Greece said the Foreign Office had dispatched a “rapid response team” to help British tourists who were among thousands who were forced to flee to save their lives as the forest fire spread on Saturday.