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Image / Self / Real-life Stories

Zoe Holohan bravely recalls losing her husband to the Greek wildfires in light of ongoing crisis


by Sarah Finnan
11th Aug 2021
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Zoe Holohan was on honeymoon with her new husband Brian O’Callaghan Westropp when tragedy struck and her worst nightmare was realised.

Footage of the deadly flames ravaging through Greece and Turkey began circulating last week when it emerged that hundreds of wildfires had broken out as a result of the intense heat. 

Described as a “natural disaster of unprecedented proportions”, close to 600 fires continue burning in all corners of the country with Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis admitting that it’s been one of the “most difficult” periods the nation has faced in several decades. 

Sixty-three organised evacuations have taken place in the past few days, while hundreds of homes have been destroyed and countless families have been displaced by the ongoing turmoil. Unfortunately, not the first time that Greece has faced such a catastrophe, similar fires broke out in the summer of 2018 – ones which Irish woman Zoe Holohan will never forget. 

In Greece on her honeymoon with husband Bryan O’Callaghan Westropp, the newlyweds had gotten married just four days prior. Staying in a gorgeous villa in Mati to celebrate their nuptials, wildfires broke out near to their accommodation with Brian the first one to notice the ruckus outside. Quickly grabbing a handful of essentials, the duo made for the gate but an electricity shortage impeded their exit meaning they were stuck. 

Eventually making it over the villa’s enclosure, the couple saved five children while running from the flames with a nearby driver motioning them into his car to help them escape. Admitting that they were “basically sitting ducks”, Zoe recalled the horrific ordeal on LiveLine earlier this week.

“The car crashed and Brian fell out and a huge burning tree just came down on top of us,” she told Joe Duffy. “He was basically engulfed in flames, and he was gone, and I thought I was gone.” 

Encouraged to keep the faith by her husband, Zoe remembered how he had assured her everything would be fine just moments prior. “Brian promised me we were gonna be okay, I was convinced we were gonna be okay, he was a problem solver – one of these people that would get things done. So if he says ‘we’re going to get through this’, I trusted him. Of course, asking him to make an impossible promise.”

Rescued by a volunteer firefighter, Zoe had serious injuries to contend with herself, spending months in an intensive care unit in Greece as she recovered. Later writing a book (As The Smoke Clears) about her experience, the Dubliner documented both Brian’s devastating loss as well as what her own recovery entailed. 

Now spurred to speak out about that fateful trip three years on, Zoe confessed that the footage of the current situation is like watching history repeat itself.  “One thing that’s really affected me is when I’m looking at the footage and I’m almost talking to the television, saying ‘well, that’s what it was like, there’s such poor visibility’. It’s almost like that midnight sun that’s happening over there. The sun is on fire, the sky is on fire. What you can’t see is that thickness of smoke.”

Comparing it to “breathing in acid”, Zoe said that she feels completely powerless watching things unfold – all the more so given that she knows exactly what it’s like. “It’s a helpless feeling watching this happen in live-time and not being able to do anything.”

If you’re in a position to help, several charities are accepting donations that will be used as part of the relief fund including the Hellenic Red Cross which is working to support victims and animals displaced by the fires.

Local Greek news outlet Greek Reporter also set up a GoFundMe campaign, while the non-profit foundation Desmos is collecting goods as well as online donations via their website.

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