British tourists said they had been left in “a living nightmare” after wildfires caused the emergency evacuation of 19,000 people on the Greek island of Rhodes.
More than 3,000 people were rescued from beaches and another 16,000 taken to safety on land as flames intensified in the south-eastern region of the island on Saturday.
The wildfires, which began six days ago, had prompted the biggest evacuation from a blaze in Greece’s history, the Athens government said on Sunday.
The British ambassador to Greece said the UK Foreign Office had sent a rapid deployment team to help stranded UK tourists, as travel companies cancelled holidays to Rhodes.
Local agencies have struggled to get the wildfires under control amid a prolonged heatwave across southern Europe, which officials warned could trigger further evacuations in the coming days.
Travel firm Jet2 on Sunday cancelled package holidays to Rhodes for at least a week, while easyJet aborted holidays due to depart up to Tuesday. They also announced plans for two repatriation flights on Monday, and one on Tuesday.
Tui announced it had cancelled all outbound flights to Rhodes up to and including Tuesday and passengers due to travel on these flights will receive full refunds.
The travel company added: “Passengers due to travel on Wednesday will be offered a fee-free amend to another holiday or the option to cancel for a full refund.
“Those customers currently on holiday elsewhere in Rhodes will return on their scheduled flights.”
Thomas Cook announced it had cancelled all holidays to Kiotari and Lardos, the areas of the island most at risk, until 31 July.
However, Tui was criticised for flying holidaymakers out as late as Saturday night, when many hotels had been evacuated due to the worsening situation.
On Sunday night, authorities also ordered the evacuation of five small settlements on the island of Corfu, owing to wildfires.
People in Santa, Megoula, Porta, Palia Perithia and Sinies have been advised to head to Kasiopi, another village on the island.
Holidaymakers described scenes of panic and chaos on beaches where thousands of people waited to be rescued.
One said they saw children falling into the sea from evacuation boats as ash fell from the sky. Another described people abandoning their belongings on beaches as they clambered on to rescue vessels.
Ian Murison, from London, likened the evacuation to “the end of the world” as the sea turned black with soot and people rushed towards boats.
Murison said he and his family had walked almost 4 miles in scorching heat towards Gennadi beach, where they were met by a scene of chaos.
“Thousands moved on to the beach. It was impossible to get on to coaches because people just ran. It was literally like the end of the world and the flames were now far more visible because of course it’s night-time and we couldn’t see that during the day,” he told Sky News.
“Suddenly there were leaping flames into the sky, and the sky was completely orange in the distance, so that sort of set about a level of panic.”
Murison said there were hundreds or thousands of people left on the beach, which was littered with suitcases that had been thrown off the rescue boat so more families could be taken to safety.
He said: “My wife ... was finding it stressful, particularly when they said it was women and children only on the bus and I kissed them goodbye. She thought it might be the last time she saw me.”
Helen Tonk, from the east Midlands, said Tui had flown her family and hundreds of others into a “living nightmare” in a flight that landed in Rhodes just before 11pm on Saturday.
Tonk was told when they landed that their hotel in Gennadi had been evacuated and that she, her husband and daughters aged 15, 21 and 22 would instead have to sleep in a school sports hall, which had been turned into an emergency refuge centre in the city of Rhodes.
“We shouldn’t be here in a million years,” she said. “It’s one thing being here already and being caught in the chaos – and we’ve been talking to families who have had to flee and there was just panic and chaos – but then we’ve added to the problem by effectively being dropped into it. Our plane should have come over empty and should have been bringing people back.”
She praised local people for providing food and support to those stranded but said her family and dozens of others had been “completely abandoned” by their holiday companies.
“We are adding to the problem. We’ve been completely abandoned. Abandoned is the word I would use, and we just don’t know what our options are.”
She added: “In my mind I don’t see how you could say this is an act of God because we weren’t already here. They [Tui] have chosen to bring us here. They’ve read the situation locally wrong and we should not be here.”
Another woman, Sharon Richards, described how her family were told to flee their hotel in Lardos, on the fire-ravaged south-east of the island, on Saturday night.
Richards, from Glasgow, said her family, including a nine-year-old boy and girls aged 11 and 17, and dozens of other British guests had been let down by UK travel companies.
Tourists from other countries had been evacuated but Jet2 and Tui had failed to provide any proper information to those on the ground, she said.
“We were told to leave our suitcases in our hotel and flee for the beach. The flames were on the hillside right next to us but there’s a petrol station right across the road from the hotel,” she said.
“We were quite scared really, not knowing what was happening. All the Polish and Scandinavian people in our hotel were bussed to other hotels more or less straight away whereas us Brits were just kind of left.”
Richards, speaking to the Guardian from an evacuation centre in the city of Rhodes, said they eventually reached the north of the island about 10 hours after being told to flee their hotel.
Her family, who are on a package holiday with Jet2, are due to fly home on Monday night but have not been told whether they will be able to collect their possessions.
A Tui spokesperson said: “We’re continuing to closely monitor the wildfires in Rhodes which have led to the evacuation of a number of hotels in the south of the island.
“We appreciate how distressing and difficult it is for customers who have been evacuated and ask they follow the advice of the local authorities who are managing tourist movements in impacted areas.
“Our resort teams are doing everything they can to support customers, working closely with the relevant authorities.”