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Honeymoon horror Zoe Holohan: 'People have suffered sudden loss in the pandemic. I want to show them they can survive'

Zoe Holohan's world was shattered on honeymoon in 2018 when her new husband Brian died in a Greek fire. She tells us about that fateful day, the firefighter who saved her life and her painstaking recovery

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Zoe Holohan was in a coma and had to learn to talk and walk again during her recovery.

Zoe Holohan was in a coma and had to learn to talk and walk again during her recovery.

Zoe Holohan was in a coma and had to learn to talk and walk again during her recovery.

Zoe Holohan's greatest hero will always be the man she went on honeymoon with for three blissful days before he was taken from her in wildfires that ripped the heart out of a Greek village. Her new husband Brian O'Callaghan-Westropp perished along with 101 other victims.

But there is another man who made her heart skip a hopeful beat when she heard from him months later - the civil firefighter, Manos Tsaliagos, who plucked her, near-dead from the boot of a burning car on that Monday, July 23, 2018.

The Dubliner had thanked him silently in her head many times as she lay awake trying to keep the nightmares at bay.

Former advertising executive Zoe - whose book As the Smoke Clears has just been published in Ireland - had a terrible question to ask him.

She says: "I was so pleased to hear from him on Facebook. His English was poor as my Greek, so we mostly talked in emojis! I missed it for a long time because there were hundreds and hundreds of direct messages from people.

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Firefighter Manos Tsaliagos who saved Zoe.

Firefighter Manos Tsaliagos who saved Zoe.

Firefighter Manos Tsaliagos who saved Zoe.

"Then I found one from him, and I knew the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had written to him. I looked at his page and knew it was really him as he had the Taoiseach's letter on his page, proudly displayed.

"How do you thank someone for saving your life? There is no thank you big enough. Manos carried me out of the wreckage, through flaming trees, protected my face with his arm.

"I was almost afraid to ask, but I needed to know if the five children, who we had been in the car with, had survived? I dreamed about this one toddler all the time, standing in only his nappy, one of the children Brian had tried to save.

"We found the kids on the road at the very moment a car came and Brian and I scooped them in.

"His answer was yes, they were okay and immediately that nightmare disappeared. I was so grateful for that. Brian had saved them. That was a huge moment.

"Manos saved my life and many others and a few days later he had to go back in and clear out the bodies. Can you imagine?"

Zoe - who I've known and laughed with for many years, because she worked on ads and creative content for this magazine and went on to become supplement account manager of INM - never had a bad hair day when we worked together.

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Post-fire Zoe is very different to pre-fire Zoe, she says, but she is now ready to start whatever this new life will be. Picture by Claire Nash.

Post-fire Zoe is very different to pre-fire Zoe, she says, but she is now ready to start whatever this new life will be. Picture by Claire Nash.

Post-fire Zoe is very different to pre-fire Zoe, she says, but she is now ready to start whatever this new life will be. Picture by Claire Nash.

Always glam from head to toe, you could hear Zoe approach your desk before you saw her with her clickety heels, leather pants and a million bracelets - not forgetting the hair extensions she adored.

And it was on a windy day, dressed in her finery that Zoe first met Brian - when their lunch date went to dinner to drinks - the best kind of love story, back in October 2014.

She says: "I did a little victory dance in the ladies' when I had a moment to gather my thoughts."

They married in June 2018.

"I know everyone says it, but I really mean it, our wedding was perfect. We were on cloud 10," says Zoe.

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Zoe and Brian on their wedding day in July 2018

Zoe and Brian on their wedding day in July 2018

Zoe and Brian on their wedding day in July 2018

In As the Smoke Clears, Zoe writes of her honeymoon: "We had stocked up on local delights, we feasted on tzatziki, stuffed vine leaves, salads, meats and olives. We talked about how we would spend the next few days, which islands we would travel to and explore."

It was an incredibly hot day, Zoe recalls, and after a lazy dip and some typical honeymoon loving the pair went for an afternoon snooze.

"I woke up to the sound of him calling to me urgently. I grabbed the first things I could find, a long, white, embroidered dress and a pair of wedge sandals. I believed a long dress would protect my legs. Brian was transfixed by the open patio door, staring out into the garden and pool area and I was instantly hit by a sheet of blindingly intense heat.

"The fence along the side of the garden, just a few meters from where we were standing, was ablaze."

What followed was a terrifying attempt to escape, the 9ft electric gate failed, and the couple had to leave the car and flee on foot, meeting terrified locals looking for the safest route.

A barely road-worthy car jam-packed with an elderly couple, another adult and then the small kids stopped to give them a lift and, when there was not enough room, popped open the boot for Brian and Zoe.

"The flames were cooking my hair and my face." Suddenly the car stopped as an entire tree crashed down with Brian and Zoe smothered in burning debris.

Brian was engulfed in flames shouting 'Why?' as he died, his new wife screamed his name again and again and she didn't stop for hours.

The road to her recovery - grief and severe burns - has been a giant uphill battle.

Zoe had to learn to walk, talk and use her limbs again. She lost her dad, Colm, to cancer while still in a Greek hospital and was in a coma in Dublin after contracting an infection on her return home.

When she finally came home to an empty Dublin apartment, the smell of home, the smells of Brian, an empty biker jacket hanging on the stair rail - almost waiting for his return - how was she going to survive emotionally?

Zoe says: "It's so unfair. The smell of his aftershave brings me right there but then I am under the duvet for 24 hours crying. He was my soul mate.

"I could hardly walk, my grafts required an awful lot of tending to. I would have spent three or four days going in and out of hospital. Writing was like a self-imposed therapy. I could sit there for nine or 10 hours writing and it was a compulsion."

Beautifully written, Zoe says her book is not only a love letter to Clare native Brian, who was 46, but also the healthcare workers who carried her through.

It was cognitive behavioural therapy in St James' Hospital that gave Zoe back some sanity.

"To use an analogy of a filing cabinet, I had this horrific, terrible thing that happened, that never should have happened, and for 18 months it was on constant replay. It should have been at the back of the filing cabinet but instead the file was right at the front.

"Every time I hit a trigger, and mine was a change in weather, if the wind picked up and there was howling, I would no longer be in my apartment. I would be on that road in Mati waiting to die.

"The process of repeating in minute detail everything that happened from the very beginning to the end, again and again, was a very cruel task, but I started to talk about it like it was in the past, at last. It worked for me."

Zoe adds: "This pandemic means a lot of people have suffered a sudden loss and I'm hoping I will show them that they can survive.

"Grief doesn't disappear but I think in time you carry it more gracefully, it gives you an extra layer of empathy.

"I don't want people to think of Brian as the man who perished in Greek fires, he was the hero who saved those children's lives and saved more as a volunteer with Blood Bikes East and had a brilliant sense of humour."

  • As The Smoke Clears, published by Gill Books, €16.99, is out now.


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