Portugal: Horrifying drone footage has emerged showing the hollowed-out cars where desperate families burned to death in the deadliest wild fire ever to hit Portugal.
At least four children are among the 62 killed after flames tore through villages in the central Pedrogao Grande region – thought to have been sparked by a lightning strike on Saturday.
The video shows at least 12 incinerated vehicles that became trapped as the blaze consumed the surrounding trees before passing over the tarmac.
It is not known exactly how many people perished in the cars shown, as authorities warn the death toll could rise because ‘many’ are still missing.
As well as scenes of devastation, incredible stories of survival have started to emerge – such as 12 locals including a disabled 95-year-old woman who emerged unscathed after hiding in a water tank.
Maria do Céu Silva has been hailed a hero after using her house’s water tank to rescue residents of Nodeirinho, including her elderly mother, Correio da Manhã reports.
Mrs Silva said her mother wanted to be left to die, but she refused to accept that, and instead led people to the water tank where they hid as the fire raged around them.
The youngest victim was identified locally on Sunday as four-year-old Rodrigo Rosario, who perished alongside his uncle Sidel Belchior while driving on a country road near the historic university city of Coimbra.
Sidel, 37, was looking after the Lisbon-born boy while his newly-married parents Ana Cardita Rosario and Belchior Nuno were enjoying their honeymoon in Cape Verde.
Rodrigo’s grandmother broke down in tears as she told a Portuguese TV crew that rescuers had found his charred body by the car after a desperate social media appeal for information on his whereabouts by his anguished mum.
The other children are believed to include a four-year-old girl known only as Bianca who is said to have died as she fled with a relative, and two youngsters aged five and six are thought to have died in their car after they were trapped.
More than 2,000 firefighters battled on Monday to contain fires that are still raging across the countryside.
Reinforcements, including more water-dropping planes from Spain, France and Italy, were due to arrive as part of a European Union cooperation program, officials said.
The country is observing three days of national mourning after the deaths on Saturday night.
Many people died in their cars while trying to escape the flames in the Pedrógão Grande area, according to government sources. Two Britons have been caught up in the P fires, receiving minor burns.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: ‘We are in contact with the local authorities regarding the forest fires in central Portugal. We have provided support to a number of British people caught up in the incident and stand ready to support any others who may be affected.’
The two Britons also received treatment for smoke inhalation and have been discharged from hospital.
Foreign Minister Boris Johnson tweeted: ‘Horrified to hear of tragic loss of life in Portugal fires. Thoughts and condolences with our Portuguese friends at this time.’
Prime Minister Antonio Costa called the tragedy ‘the worst loss of human life we’ve known in recent years.’
Survivors told last night how they pulled the young and elderly from their homes in dramatic rescues before trying to reach safety themselves.
Ana Morada, one of 200 people who spent the night at a makeshift shelter at a local football club, said: ‘It was horrible. I had my grandma on the phone surrounded by flames and begging me for help.
‘I managed to contact a relative who got her out. I saw neighbours running from their cars that were burning. The only firm in the area has burnt to the ground. It’s a catastrophe.’
Susana Antunes fought back tears as she told Portuguese newspaper Jornal de Noticias: ‘We lost our car but fortunately my family and I are all okay.
‘Everything went up to flames in 15 minutes. My grandparents had to run out of their house barefoot.’
Maria de Fatima Nunes, who suffered burn injuries, told a TV interviewer: ‘It was real hell. I thought it was the end of the world. I didn’t think I was going to escape. I thought I was going to die.
‘Burning pine trees were crashing down on top of cars. It was horrible.’
Distressing footage broadcast on Portuguese TV today showed a woman being led away from her house, visibly upset and being given water to drink to save her from collapsing as she cried out, ‘My house, my house’ against a backdrop of thick smoke and flames.
Another graphic image showed a woman sitting by the side of the road with her head in her hands as rescuers around her led other people to safety.
Government ministers said this afternoon that the fires were still being fought on four fronts, with crosswinds threatening to make the job of the hundreds of firefighters tackling the flames even more difficult.
Firefighters from Spain were drafted in to help crews from other parts of Portugal trying to bring the fires under control.
Portugal has declared three days of national mourning from 6pm today for the victims in the blaze ‘which has caused an irreparable loss of human life,’ according to a government statement.
It is possibly the deadliest ever single forest blaze to hit Portugal.
Of the 59 people injured, four are in a serious condition, and four firefighters and a child are all injured.
Teams of psychologists have been deployed to care for survivors, who are ‘in shock’ and have lost relatives.
The blaze has been described as ‘almost impossible to control’ and emergency services have spoken of a ‘horrible scenario’.
A lightning strike is believed to have sparked the blaze in the Pedrógão Grande area after investigators found a tree that was hit during a ‘dry thunderstorm,’ the head of the national judicial police told Portuguese media.
Dry thunderstorms – which it is now believed are responsible for sparking the fire – are frequent when falling water evaporates before reaching the ground because of high temperatures.
Policia Judiciaria national director Almeida Rodrigues said: ‘The PJ, together with the GNR police force, have managed to establish the origin of the fire and it’s all clearly pointing towards natural causes.
‘We’ve even found a tree that was struck by lightning. We’ve managed to determine that the fire was caused by dry thunderstorms.’
The death toll is expected to rise further during the day as ‘many’ people were said to be still missing.
Several roads of Pedrógão Grande have been cut off as firemen battle the blaze on four different fronts, fanned by the heat and wind.
The Pedrógão Grande area is 50 km (30 miles) south-east of Coimbra, a UNESCO world heritage site and university town popular with tourists and international students.
There were no immediate reports of any British casualties.
The area is mainly home to Portuguese nationals, although it is frequented by some holidaymakers from other parts of Europe.
In 2003, the worst year for fatal wildfires in Portugal until this weekend, they claimed the lives of 21 people across Portugal.
The updated death toll was released today by Jorge Gomes, the secretary of state for internal affairs, having climbed from the 19 initially announced dead late yesterday.
‘We are facing the greatest tragedy of human victims of recent times by a disaster of this type,’ said the Portuguese prime minister, António Costa.
Forest fire specialist Xavier Viegas described the fire as one of the most serious in the world in recent years.
The university professor, who blamed its rapid spread on the drought and the area’s complicated terrain, said: ‘With the repercussion it’s having in Portugal and abroad, I think it’s one of the largest and most serious fires we’ve seen in the last few years in Europe, if not in the world.’
Portugal, like most southern European countries, is prone to forest fires in the dry summer months.
‘This is a region that has had fires because of its forests, but we cannot remember a tragedy of these proportions,’ said Valdemar Alves, mayor of Pedrogao Grande. ‘I am completely stunned by the number of deaths.’
Authorities had previously said that 40 C (104 F) heat in recent days might have played a part in the inferno about 150 kilometers (95 miles) northeast of Lisbon.
A huge wall of thick smoke and bright red flames towered over the top of trees near houses in the wooded region. Local resident Isabel Brandao told The Associated Press that she had feared for her life.
‘Yesterday we saw the fire but thought it was very far. I never thought it would come to this side,’ she said.
‘At 3.30am, my mother-in-law woke me up quickly and we never went to sleep again. We were afraid the fire would reach us.’
Prime Minister Antonio Costa said that firefighting crews were having difficulties in approaching the area because the fire was ‘very intense.’
He added that Portuguese authorities were working on identifying the victims and that Spanish rescuers would assist in efforts to control the blazes.
Portugal’s civil protection agency, which coordinates the firefighting efforts, issued a warning of the increased risk for forest fires on Friday. Citing the high temperatures, it said that all outdoor fires were prohibited.
At least 16 people died in their cars on a road between the towns of Figueiro dos Vinhos and Castanheira de Pera – an inland area with many hotels and holiday resorts.
Interior Ministry official Jorge Gomes said that three others died from smoke inhalation in Figueiro dos Vinhos.
‘Many’ people are said to be missing and homes have been destroyed.
Portugal has been experiencing soaring temperatures of up to 40 degrees and this, coupled with the wind, has been fueling the flames.
Approximately 700 firefighters have been fighting the blaze, helped by Spanish rescuers.
The European Union has activated its civil protection efforts to help fight the fires.
EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides said the ‘EU is fully ready to help’.
He said Spain and France are both sending aircraft to help fight the flames.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy tweeted that he is ‘overwhelmed by the tragedy at Pedrogao Grande. The Portuguese people can count on our solidarity, support and care’.
Spain said it is sending two water-dumping aircraft to help neighboring Portugal fight the blaze that has raged since Saturday night.
Portugal’s soccer team has expressed its condolences for the victims of forest fires that have claimed so many lives.
The team’s players, including star Cristiano Ronaldo and coach Fernando Santos, signed a statement saying ‘in this sad hour we send our deepest sympathies to the families, friends and loved ones of the victims of the fires.’
Portugal’s team is in Russia, where it is set to start the Confederations Cup later on Sunday against Mexico.
Pope Francis has led thousands of people in a moment of silent prayer for the victims of the Portugal fire.
Francis referred to the ‘devastating fire’ at the end of his Sunday prayer, delivered from his studio window overlooking St. Peter’s Square.
The crowd fell silent and Francis bowed his head to recall the ‘many victims’ of the blaze.
Francis visited the Portuguese shrine of Fatima last month.
Portugal’s prime minister has thanked the hundreds of firefighters combating the deadly forest fires.
Antonio Costa tweeted his ‘deepest regret for the victims … and a word of encouragement and strength for all who help combat this scourge.’
He added ‘I am so thankful to the firefighters and other professions who are giving their all for the security of each of us by fighting the fires.’