A mother has shared the heartbreaking moment her five-year-old daughter asked if they were going to die while fleeing the forest fires in Rhodes.
Joanna Hughes, 35, her husband Jon, 38, and their daughter Emilia traveled to the Greek island for a family vacation before the disaster.
The couple paid £3,600 for the all-inclusive 10-day stay at the Lindos Imperial Resort & Spa in Kiotari, which they booked through Jet2.
But instead of the dream trip, they were forced to flee for their lives as 19,000 tourists and locals were evacuated as fires raged across Rhodes.
Joanna and her family had to leave their belongings at their hotel – which was later revealed to have burned down in the inferno.
“We tried to stick together but Emilia saw it wasn’t right. She could feel it,” she said.
“She said a few times, ‘Are we going to die?’ I won’t forget that for a long time.”
“I haven’t stopped crying since we got home.”
They joined thousands of other tourists who walked the rocky beach for safety in the extreme heat.
The family, from Murton, County Durham, walked four miles to escape the flames and thick black smoke.
But eventually they reached a hotel where the army and police were taking people away from the area.
Officers took them in a police car to a third hotel 13 miles away, where they met another family from Germany who had a rental car.
The two families decided to join forces and drive across the island to reach the airport and return home.
Joanna, who works in human resources, said she was told the hotel they were staying in and surrounding hotels had burned down.
She said: “Thousands of tourists have had to flee. We made our way to the water and tried to stay as far away from the mainland as possible.”
“We just had to walk along the beach, it was really rocky.”
“Then a guy shouted ‘come up here’ and we had to turn around and go up a bench.
“There was a cloud of ash coming down. It was like walking through an oven, it was so hot. I couldn’t see anything at all.”
“There were babies wrapped in towels, it was awful. We were so high up and didn’t know where to go, we had to keep going or we would be engulfed in smoke.”
“You could see the flames in the mountains.
“We ran further and further away from the flames that were coming down. We just had no idea where we were going. We were following a road and there was no plan.”
Joanna, Jon, an engineer at National Grid, and Emilia traveled to the hotel in Rhodes on Wednesday (July 19) and were due to return home on Saturday, July 29.
Joanne said: “It was our summer holidays with Emilia. She is in reception so it is our first holiday in the school holidays. Normally we would not have gone at rush hour.”
“When we landed we were in the taxi to go to the resort and we could already see the smoke. The taxi driver said the fire had been burning for a few days.”
“She seemed ok with that and when we got to the hotel the receptionist said, ‘It’s fine, it’s in the mountains, it’s not close to us’. They didn’t seem too worried about it.”
Joanna said the wildfires got worse on Saturday afternoon and they decided to leave the hotel.
She said: “We were at the pool until about 12.30pm. The black cloud rolled over from the mountains and it got worse and worse.”
“We were in our pajamas as we couldn’t sunbathe because it was so cloudy and the ash was falling on us.
“It was at that point that we realized we had to make a decision to leave. We grabbed a bag, our passports and some cash and left.
“Some hotel staff shouted for them to leave but there was no evacuation process and no one was held accountable.
“I don’t know if there was a fire in the hotel at the time, but there was no alarm.”
“It was all about talking to the neighbor next door and making a decision.”
Joanna said they ran four miles in the heat and took turns carrying Emilia, who had a blister on her foot and was stung by a wasp.
After reaching the airport, Joanna said they paid £300 each to secure a TUI flight back to Newcastle on Sunday morning.
Joanne has criticized Jet2 for not being in touch with them and other holidaymakers the entire time they were there.
She said she only got word from them on Sunday morning, when they were already back in Newcastle.
She said: “We almost always go on holiday with Jet2. I have friends who work for the airline and we usually can’t fault them.”
“It worries you that no one will be held accountable. There was no representative, there was nothing.”
“We have had no contact whatsoever from them, not even a text message saying ‘We are aware of the current situation’. I got a message from them this morning, but that’s no use, we’re already home.”
Jet2 has since canceled all flights to Rhodes until next Sunday.
A spokesman said: “The situation in Rhodes continues to evolve rapidly and our absolute priority is the health, safety and welfare of customers and colleagues in the affected areas.”
Weather experts have declared 2023 the El Niño year – a natural phenomenon that occurs cyclically and causes fluctuations in the global climate.
The United Nations World Meteorological Organization said temperatures are set to rise around the world and that this effect is likely to continue for the rest of the year.
And despite the heat this summer, Europe’s record temperature of 48.8°C – measured in Sardinia, Sicily in 2021 – has not been reached and is currently not expected to be exceeded.
Greek authorities have since issued fresh warnings of more wildfires and forecast temperatures could reach highs of 45C this week.