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June 28, 2017

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Portugal grieves as extent of Pedrogao Grande's horror becomes clear

PEDROGAO GRANDE/LISBON -- First came the inferno. Now there's just a horror scene.

Where once stood Portugal's scenic natural paradise of Pedrogao Grande, there is little more than burnt-our villages and fields.

As the fire department battles the flames a few hundred metres way, residents wander, helpless and desperate, through what was once their community.

"Where is my mother?" and "I can't find my aunt," are some of the screams that can be clearly heard. But only black-grey ash and smoke can be seen here, where until Saturday there stood pine trees and tidy little houses. Visitors could enjoy themselves among the lagoons and reservoirs.

"What a tragedy. My grandmother's house was levelled," says Antonio Pires in Vila Facaia, a village of 580 people.

The 40-year-old has to swallow before he can report in a trembling voice: "Four of my relatives and neighbours lost their lives in the night. I have seen corpses."

In the region, barely 200 kilometres north-east of Lisbon, at least 61 people have been killed by the fires.

"Also dozens of dogs, goats, cows, rabbits and other animals are dead," says Pires.

According to the authorities, the fire started Saturday afternoon when lightning struck a tree. The rest of the catastrophe unfolded after nightfall.

Highway 236, a would-be means of escape, became a death trap, with at least 30 people dying an agonizing death here in their cars. A farmer saw the tragedy up close.

"That was unbelievable, dozens of cars were set ablaze within seconds, suddenly everywhere flames, smoke and wind. The poor people had nowhere to go," the visibly shaken man told RTP television.

A RTP reporter stood live on Sunday before the camera, behind him on the highway were dozens of charred wrecks, some wedged under another. A silent witness of the panic that must have reigned here. "A horror scene," he calls it.

One retiree was on the "highway of death" but escaped in time. She said: "All the vehicles were suddenly on fire, our car too. My husband and I had already committed our souls to the Lord. But somehow we opened the door and were able to run away through the collapsed pines."

Portugal is grieving as seldom before.

Interior Ministry State Secretary Jorge Gomes has to fight back tears as he lays out every new list of victims. Prime Minister Antonio Costa said: "We cannot remember a worst tragedy."

And President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, who travelled overnight to the disaster area, fell into the arms of Valdemar Alves, the mayor of Pedrogao Grande, after his arrival, both men weeping.

But along with the sadness is great anger. Many of those living in the homes destroyed and threatened by the flames said they waited for hours and had not seen a single fireman.

"We had neither water or electricity and, to make matters worse, we were left to fate," complained Antonio Pires.

Forestry scientist Paulo Fernandes of the University of Tras-os-Montes called for better use of meteorological data, adding that lives could have been saved through timely barricading of roads. He is certain, he says, that the weekend's tragedy could have been prevented, or at least the extent of the catastrophe could have been lessened.

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