A British family who endured a two-day escape from Rhodes said they were forced to take a ferry to Turkey when they couldn’t change their flight time, as BA staff “knew nothing” of the wildfires.
Jo-Anne Combrinck, 39, from Epsom, Surrey, was on holiday on the Greek island with her family and their friends when the wildfires struck and smoke and ash engulfed their resort.
Ms Combrinck, who was helped by island locals, said she did not hear from the airline who she had booked both her flights and hotel with.
“We called them on Sunday and the people answering knew nothing of the wildfires,” she told i. “We couldn’t get a flight out any earlier so we made the decision to catch a one-and-a-half hour ferry to Dalaman and fly from there the following day home to London,” she said.
The Combrincks flew out to Rhodes on 19 July and were holidaying with their friends Scott and Emma Spindler and their daughter Kitty. They had been due to return on Wednesday, 26 July, but their trip was cut short because of the devastating wildfires.
Ms Combrinck, her husband Ryan and their two girls, Lexi, 7 and Kiera, 5, were staying at the Mitsis Village Hotel and Spa in Kiatari when the power went off after a huge ash cloud came over the hotel on Saturday 22 July.
“We were walking down the slope to lunch when the hotel siren went off and alerts came on our phone to evacuate the town we were in,” Ms Combrinck said.
Guests at the hotel were evacuated to the beach and initially told the wind was in their favour, blowing the smoke away from them, but that quickly changed.
“Within 15 minutes, we were looking into the sky in fear. The smoke cloud was getting closer and closer, darker and darker – clearly the wind direction changed. It felt like it was nearly on top of us. I just looked at my husband and we didn’t even have to talk.”
They fled with other holidaymakers to the nearest beach to escape the flames. When Ms Combrinck turned to look where they had come from she said she saw palm trees on fire, adding “the smoke was so close and seemed it was catching us“.
In total, the families walked four miles across sandy beach terrain, wearing sandals in 40°C heat.
They were given masks and water by hotel staff and the children used wet towels to try and keep cool and help them to breathe.
“I was carrying my five-year-old,” Ms Combrinck said. “On normal days I can’t carry her more than five minutes. I walked 8km in 40°C on soft sand with her on my hip. The kids had wet towels around them, weighing them down. How they walked that far, in that heat, I will never know. I keep thinking how brave they were.”
At one point, where the rock face on the beach came out into the sea, people were walking in the water, which was around knee-height. Ms Combrinck fell and cut her foot in the water.
“People actually started crying because the rocks were so sharp – and that’s when my shoe broke. I was carrying my five-year-old at the time and I fell down on to a rock and [and cut my foot]. I just sat there and people were trying to get me up.”
Once they were no longer able to walk along the beach, the Combrincks travelled uphill through a residential area where locals supported them with water, fruit and transport, she said.
A local man arranged for the group of seven to be driven to an “evacuation spot and safe zone”.
Ms Combrinck said the family encountered chaos at the evacuation spot, but they eventually made it on to a coach and made a one-and-a-half hour journey to a hotel in Rhodes town.
“We were just told we had no room to stay in but we could use their restaurant. I actually didn’t care, we were one-and-a-half hours away from the nightmare.
“Beds were set up in the conference room, we were given toothbrushes and a wipe each. We were given two beds for our family of four. I didn’t care, was just happy the children could sleep.”
The holiday cost the family around £4,000 and they were forced to pay out a further £700 to get home early after their hotel was evacuated and no alternative accommodation was arranged.
“We booked through BA and it was £1,090 and then the hotel, it was about £3,000,” Ms Combrinck said.
“We had to pay I think it was £500 to change our BA flights, and the ferry across was an additional, I think, £150 for the four of us and then we also had to stay a night in Dalaman which was like £80 for just a room.”
Ms Combrinck said that she has been told by BA that because they re-routed and did not fly out of the same airport that they arrived in, their out-of-pocket costs will not be covered by the airline.
In a statement, British Airways said: “We continue to carefully monitor the situation in Rhodes and are in touch with our British Airways Holidays customers in the affected areas to provide assistance.
“The safety of all our customers is our priority and we are giving them the option to change their return flight from either destination free of charge if they need to return earlier than planned.
“Anyone due to travel out of the UK in the next week to these destinations can change their flight to a later date if they prefer.”