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18 June 2017

Portugal fire survivor: ‘I should have died’

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Gareth Roberts

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Gareth Roberts captured this image of fire looming over Portugal as he sought shelter

A wildfire in central Portugal, apparently started by a lightning strike in dry conditions, has claimed dozens of lives.

One of those lucky to survive was Gareth Roberts, 36, who is originally from Colne in Lancashire but who has lived in central Portugal for the past four years.

He told the BBC his story.

We were driving back from holiday in Cadiz in Spain and were about 50 minutes from home – we’d known about the fire for a few hours, we could see the plume of smoke.

We’d driven through a thunderstorm and when that cleared, you could see the smoke. I thought it looked quite bad, but I had no idea until we got nearer.

We found ourselves stranded in a village called Mó Grande, just off of the IC8 motorway; ourselves and others were directed there by an officer from the IC8.

As we drove up the mountain road you could see the flames jumping across from one side of the valley to the other.

The accompanying wind threw branches at the car but you couldn’t stop, you could feel the heat.

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Gareth Roberts

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Gareth Roberts praised “the most amazing acts of humanity” by strangers

Eventually we reached the small village at a crossroads surrounded by fire. Locals and ourselves were crying, overwhelmed by the heat and speed of the fire. It was dark, so dark, among the flames.

A man shouted for us to come and take refuge in his home, along with his mother. Several of us did.

His mum had an annex flat downstairs, where it was cooler and out of the way of the fire. During the time there, more people were arriving, knocking on the door, people just congregated where there were signs of life.

The guy’s mum poured us wine, and it would have been pleasant if it wasn’t for the circumstances.

When I had got to the village I messaged my parents to tell them: “I am in a village, fire is all around, this is the end.” But when I got to the house, there was no network, so I thought: “The last thing I told my parents was that I was dying.”

In pictures: Portugal forest fire

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EPA

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Most of the victims died in or near their cars around Pedrogao Grande

As the power went off, the flames hit hard, a fiery red tornado passed the windows. We crouched on the floor for a good hour, trying to breathe, praying, crying.

I am not ashamed to say it: I was praying, we were all praying. I am not religious, but at that time, you couldn’t do anything else.

I said: “It can’t end like this.” I just started crying and got emotional – I was no use to anyone for 20 minutes.

Eventually the fire passed and we emerged to see the smouldering remains of the village. Miraculously, our house and the one next door did not burn.

Three days of mourning in Portugal

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EPA

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Efforts to fight the fire continued well into Sunday as the death toll rose

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EPA

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The prime minister called it “the greatest tragedy we have seen in recent years”

The devastation was indescribable. People, bewildered, remains of homes burning uncontrollably, concrete posts exploding over roads.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. After the fire passed, it should still have been bright, but it was dark. There was a strange film over everyone’s eyes.

You could hear gas canisters exploding, see blue flashes going off. There was just a strange silence. There was a lull, a strange feeling. It then turned to relief, there was crying.

At this point, there hadn’t been help from anyone with the authorities. All the help was from the locals, without phone calls being made and without internet, just the way it had always been done.

If those people hadn’t shown their generosity, we would not be here today. There have been so many examples of the most amazing acts of humanity.

I said thank you to them for saving my life. But a small ‘thank you’ is nowhere near enough.

We could have died. We should have died. A random act of kindness last night saved our lives and now all we can do is pray for Portugal.

After the fire, Gareth travelled to the town of Tomar, where he remains in a hotel. The fire has prevented him from travelling home, but he hopes to return in the coming days.

He also hopes to return to Mo Grande to thank the family that saved his life.

Gareth Roberts was speaking to the BBC’s Roland Hughes

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