'I saw them jump': witness to Spanish wildfire deaths

23rd July 2012, Comments 0 comments

Xavier Mallol saw a small group of people panic and jump off a steep cliff to their deaths to avoid the flames from a wildfire near the town of Portbou in northeastern Spain.

"I saw them descend, a group of three people. They went in the wrong direction and I saw them jump," the 26-year-old computer engineer said at the marina of Portbou, just across the French border, describing Sunday's events.

"Instead of heading towards the village, they turned left to the side of the sea and they became trapped. There were three of them. The father was the first to jump, then a woman followed him."

A 60-year-old Frenchman died immediately from injuries suffered in the fall while emergency services workers recovered the remains of his 15-year-old daughter from the Mediterranean Sea several minutes later.

It was not clear on Monday what had happened to the man's wife. The family's two other children escaped unharmed.

"From where they jumped you would have to project yourself about one metre (3.3 feet) to reach the sea, they probably did not jump far enough and they hit the rocks below," said Portbou mayor Jose Luis Salas-Mallol.

Two other French nationals were killed due to the wildfire which broke out on Sunday near the town of La Junquera near the French border and spread very quickly in the region of Alt Emporda, whipped up by winds of up to 90 kilometres (55 miles) an hour.

A 75-year-old man died of a heart attack as he watched his house consumed by flames in the town of Llers and a 64-year-old man died after suffering burns to 80 percent of his body after his car became surrounded by flames.

"It is a very difficult situation," said Salas-Mallol.

The fire may have been caused by someone throwing a cigarette stub out of the window of their car, he added.

Dozens of people became trapped by the flames on the winding road bordered by cactus and shrubs with its postcard views that links Portbou to the French town of Cerbere.

Many drivers abandoned their cars and a group of about 100 people descended to a nearby beach as the fire raged on Sunday, witnesses said.

In small groups, they walked for about 100 metres (yards) as thick smoke from the wildfire covered the sky.

Charred cactus plants outside restaurants along the road served as a reminder Monday of the frantic scenes there a day earlier.

Hundreds of local residents gathered at the beach and helped people who were injured in falls during their descent. Some used boats to take people to safety.

"I saw a small girl of about eight who could not walk, someone carried her in his arms into the water and hoisted her into a boat," said 63-year-old Eugene Mascot.

At both the beach and the town of Portbou, which is home to just over 1,000 people, local residents provided clothes, blankets and food for people who had abandoned their cars to escape the flames.

About 20 people spent the night at a community centre. Others slept in their cars or in the homes of local residents.

© 2012 AFP

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