FIGUEIRO DOS VINHOS, June 19 — Trapped in his car by the raging wildfires that killed around 60 people in Portugal, Luis Prior managed to save his life by rushing head-on through the flames.
But many others were less fortunate, losing their lives on the country's national route 236 which was transformed into a road of hell as the blaze ripped through the wooded countryside.
Yesterday afternoon, at least a dozen charred vehicles blocked the road linking the city of Figueiro dos Vinhos to Castanheira de Pera, sitting behind a barrier set up by officials near the village of Pobrais.
Prior, a 55-year-old bank employee, returned to the site where he nearly died.
After a visit with his brother in law in Vila Facaia, the men fled ahead of a sudden surge of flames whipped up by violent winds.
'Flames were everywhere'
“The entire zone was engulfed by the fire in the space of around 10 minutes,” he said.
“We tried to get through on one side, then another, but the flames were everywhere.
“I finally abandoned my car, I climbed in my brother-in-law's car and we decided to tempt our luck: we charged through the flames.”
The pair travelled “one or two kilometres in the middle of the flames,” before reaching safety, on the other side of the blaze.
They did not see any firemen, he added.
At the side of the road, Luisilda Malheiro and her husband Eduardo Abreu, a couple of farmers, both 62, also escaped the hellish N-236.
But their haggard faces showed they were still in shock: They lost several neighbours who had tried to escape Pobrais.
The violence of the flames and speed with which the fire spread, were “incomprehensible,” said Malheiro.
“We escaped in time, me on the tractor and he with our van.
“Our house is still there but we lost everything else: the chickens, the rabbits and the ducks. We were only able to save two goats.”
A stunned population
Several kilometres away, a policeman kept journalists from approaching a burned car at the entrance to the village of Nodeirinho, surrounded by a forest of Eucalyptus trees and pines destroyed by the flames.
Small columns of grey smoke continued to rise from the blackened soil.
Three bodies, including one of an infant, were lying near the car, according to witnesses at the scene.
In Pedrogao Grande, the village where rescue services set up operations, the population remained stunned by the extent of the disaster.
Sitting in a cafe next to a woman in tears, Isabel Ferreira, 62, told AFP about what happened in Nodeirinho.
“I knew several of the victims. One of my colleagues lost her mother and her four-year-old girl as she could not get them out of the back of the car,” she said.
“We have already had fires in the region but never any deaths,” she added.
“We have never seen anything like this.” — AFP