6 firefighters die battling fierce forest fire on Croatian island

6 firefighters die battling fierce forestfire on Croatian island

31 August 2007

published by www.iht.com

Croatia — The prime minister promised an investigation Friday into Croatia’sworst firefighting tragedy, in which six men were killed and seven badly injuredwhen they were trapped battling a fierce forest blaze.

The group — including volunteers aged 17 and 18 — was encircled by flamesThursday when the wind suddenly changed direction while they were fighting afire on Kornat island, national firefighting chief Mladen Jurin said.

Police said eight men had been detained on suspicion of arson. The state-runnews agency HINA said the eight were seasonal construction and tourist workers.They were allegedly filmed setting the fire by a German tourist.

The fire was brought under control early Friday.

The victims had been among 23 firefighters initially sent to fight the Kornatblaze. At one point, the 13 went to confront flames that threatened homes on theisland, but were trapped when the fire changed course and surrounded them.

Women and children were jumping into the sea as the fire approached theirhomes, firefighter Nikola Kurkut told the Croatian daily newspaper VecernjiList.

The injured firefighters were taken by a helicopter to a hospital; the deadwere recovered Friday afternoon and transferred to a regional morgue. Autopsieswill be carried out to determine the exact causes of death, hospital officialssaid.

Five of the seven wounded had life-threatening injuries, and were transferredovernight to two clinics in the capital, Zagreb, doctors said. Burns covered85-90 percent of their bodies.

Prime Minister Ivo Sanader visited the injured early Friday in the firstclinic in the coastal city of Zadar, saying it was the “biggest tragedy inCroatian firefighting.”

“The government insists on a thorough investigation,” he said. Ifit was arson, the government wants the “perpetrators to be identified andharshly punished,” he said.

President Stipe Mesic demanded an inquiry into the actions of firefightingcommanders, saying they “should have left a way for their retreat.”

The chief Croatian firefighter, Jurin, defended his colleagues and said theincident was part “of the risks of our job.”

The government set Monday as a national day of mourning.

The county governor declared a seven-day mourning period, and said the deadincluded a 17-year-old and two 18-year-old members of the local volunteeringfirefighting brigade. Others were professional firefighters. The injured alsoincluded both volunteers and professionals.

Kornat is the biggest island in the archipelago of Kornati, off centralCroatia in the Adriatic Sea. Dozens of small islands, mostly uninhabited andsurrounded by clear blue water, are popular with tourists.

Croatia has battled a record 1,500 fires this summer, mostly in forests. Theonly other casualty this year was a firefighter who died Wednesday after fallingill while putting out fires on another island.

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