Greece — A Greek fire-fighting plane crashed while battling a blaze on the Ionian Sea island of Kefalonia on Thursday, killing the pilot, authorities said.
The accident happened three days after fire fighters managed to bring under control a wildfire that destroyed 150 homes and thousands of hectares of forest and farmland near Athens.
“The death of airforce colonel Stergios Kotoulas has shattered us,” Greek President Karolos Papoulias said. “He fell at the frontline doing his duty, battling the fire.”
The 1983, Polish-made PZL plane crashed nine minutes after taking off from the Kefalonia airport to fight a forest fire, officials said. Nobody else was on board.
The 55-year-old father of two had thousands of hours of flight experience on several types of aircraft.
“I’d like to express my devastation, our grief and my condolences for the loss of the pilot, who died while doing his duty selflessly,” Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said.
While his conservative government was criticized for its response to the Aug 21-24 fires, the worst in Greece since a 2007 forest blaze killed 65 people, fire fighters have won praise by all political parties for their tireless efforts.
“This is tragic proof of the huge effort made by firemen all these days,” main socialist PASOK opposition spokesman George Papaconstantinou said.
Greek, Italian and French water-drop planes, hundreds of fire fighters and soldiers battled the three-day inferno, which forced thousands to flee their homes and prompted a state of emergency in the east Attica region.
A public prosecutor ordered an inquiry into whether arsonists were behind the disaster in an area where fires have in the past been set by land developers.
Political parties and the media said the lack of enforcement of strict zoning laws encouraged arson because villas have been sprouting illegally in the middle of burned forests for decades.
The government announced it would help rebuild houses destroyed in the fire and support local farmers, restore the forests and take protection measures in the future. It said no illegally built house would get aid.