Family loaded into military dinghies in beach rescue

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A family of holidaymakers caught up in the Rhodes wildfires were packed on to dinghies to board a military ship as the flames closed in on their hotel.

Paul and Corrine Watson and their two sons, from Cockermouth, Cumbria, were staying in Gennadi, near Lindos, when they were forced to flee on Saturday.

Mr Watson said when rescue buses arrived at a nearby beach, fights broke out as people were desperate to board.

The family then decided to take to the water in soldiers’ dinghies.

The Watsons, who are now safely back home, arrived on the island on Wednesday for a two-week holiday that cost £10,000.

They became caught up in the unfolding drama just days later.

‘You need to run’

When people from nearby towns were brought to their hotel on Saturday, the severity of the situation soon sank in.

“The lobby area of the hotel must have had about an extra 1,000 guests in, maybe more,” Mr Watson said.

After returning to their room, there was a knock at the door warning them they needed to evacuate the building.

“There was a really lively Greek chap just shouting, ‘You need to get away – stop standing still, you need to run’,” he said.

Paul Watson

Paul Watson praised TUI staff on the ground but hit out at the tour operator for how it handled the situation

“All of a sudden these military vans came and were picking people up – they were all like sardines stood in the back, being shipped to the beach.

“There were thousands and thousands of tourists down there. There were some Greek volunteers shouting, ‘You either get on a boat or you wait for a coach’.”

Mr Watson said the family had initially decided to wait but fights began to break out when a coach arrived.

“One guy got on and someone pulled him back down the steps and flung a punch at him,” he said.

“This was all in complete darkness. We were looking on our phones to see if there was any guidance from the tour operator – there was absolutely nothing.

“It was my oldest son who said, ‘I think we need to get on to a boat’.”

The family was told to leave their belongings on the shore before they were “literally lifted” into dinghies by soldiers in uniform.

“The dinghies took us out to a military ship where we were taken three hours up the coast to Rhodes old town – we were on the top deck of the ship getting battered by the wind and the spray,” Mr Watson added.

A map of Rhodes

Officials estimate 19,000 have been evacuated by land and sea with more people due to be evacuated from three villages – Pefki, Lindos, Kalathos

They were then taken to a disused school where they slept on the floor, with water and power cutting out, and no working toilets.

The next morning a rep from their tour operator TUI arrived.

“I felt sorry for her, she got absolutely battered and it wasn’t her fault. She was doing her best to deal with folk,” he said.

“There were people with really young kids or illnesses who needed help and she was trying to deal with each one of them individually, she did a great job.”

A cloud of smoke as seen from the hotel

A cloud of smoke as seen from the Watsons’ hotel in the village of Gennadi, near Lindos

He was told the holiday company would issue advice regarding their next steps.

However, Mr Watson was left frustrated when an email arrived, advising him to arrange his own flights and hotel.

The family went to the airport where another rep found them accommodation, and they slept on the floor of a hotel function room, being “well-looked after” by staff there.

“The people of Greece and Rhodes were just unbelievably caring and kind to us,” he said.

“The TUI reps on the ground were really good, they did their best.

“The only frustration we had, and it was only for the first 24 hours, was the TUI corporate centre and its communication.

“It was a £10,000 holiday, we were told go and sort yourself out when they knew you can’t – it wasn’t good enough.”

The family was later repatriated.

The family slept in the function room of hotel

The family bedded down on the floor of a hotel, with their belongings abandoned on another part of the island

A spokesperson for TUI said it was working “working tirelessly” to support those affected by the fires in Rhodes, that hundreds of its customers had already been flown home and it was working hard to “get everyone back as soon as we can”.

“The safety and well-being of our customers and teams remains our top priority,” the firm said.

“We appreciate how distressing and difficult it’s been for those who have been evacuated.”We ask that they continue to follow the advice of the local authorities and keep in touch with our reps. We have now moved all customers who had been in an evacuation centres to unaffected hotels where our reps are based to look after impacted guests.”

The Foreign Office has not advised against going to Rhodes, but added that it had sent six staff members and four British Red Cross responders to Rhodes International Airport to work with Greek authorities and travel operators.

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