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heartbreaking Brave Zoe Holohan tells Late Late Show viewers of the devastating loss of her husband in Greek fire

My happy place is when I visualise Brian on the morning of our honeymoon," Zoe said

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Zoe with her late husband Brian.

Zoe with her late husband Brian.

Zoe with her late husband Brian.

On July 23, 2018, in Mati, Greece, Zoe Holohan and her husband, Brian Westropp O’Callaghan, saw their dream honeymoon turn to a living nightmare when wildfires swept across the region.

The tragedy cost 102 people in the area their lives, including Zoe’s new husband Brian.

Zoe and Brian fled the villa they were staying in, chased by the flames, running for their lives.

Zoe was one of the few survivors from the area, having been rescued from the boot of a burning car.

‘As The Smoke Clears’ is her book which details her incredible journey since the tragedy.

Speaking on The Late Late Show, Zoe said she uses the joyful memories from the start of their honeymoon to keep her spirits up when the magnitude of what she went through gets her down.

“My happy place is when I visualise Brian on the morning of our honeymoon, and at this stage we have just arrived in Greece, we’re just in the country a couple of days and we’re splashing around like a pair of morons in the pool and it’s stunning.

“I think Brian will forgive me for saying that he is the world’s worst gossip, he’s in the pool and we’re talking about all the shenanigans that happened in the wedding - as every wedding has shenanigans - and it was just a really happy moment.

"It’s a place I got to often when things go wrong or when I’m reminded of all the terrible things that happened thereafter.

“I don’t want to remember Brian’s end, I want to remember him in that moment,” she said.

The brave Dubliner recounted the fateful afternoon in which Brian lost his life and left her with burns all over her body.

“I woke and he was no longer in the bed beside me. He was calling me urgently to come downstairs..there was an urgency in his tone.

“I saw Brian staring out beyond the patio, he was transfixed, and then I noticed there was this heat that just hit when I got downstairs.

“The whole side of the garden by the pool was on fire, I mean visibly in flames.

“It was like a horror movie where they start out all happy and then you’re plunged into this horrific situation,” she said.

What felt like an hour was probably seconds for Zoe as she quickly got dressed and fled the villa.

Zoe described the terrifying moment when she and Brian were being surrounded by flames and the remote control for the gate of the villa would not open as the electricity in the area was cut off.

“There were miniature tornadoes of debris floating in the air, and they are right outside the car.

"Every breath was agonising as it’s like you are swallowing acid. It burns all the way down into your lungs so you’re even hesitant to breathe. And Brian is trying to crank open the gate.

"By the time we realised the gate wasn’t going to open, the flames had surrounded the car.

Brian and Zoe knew they would have to flee on foot and despite dislocating her kneecap, Zoe said “it didn’t register”.

“I made him promise that we would be safe. He never let me down so when he told me we would be okay,

"I believed him. Holding hands we ran. It’s hard to describe how dark it was for the early afternoon. There’s just this thick fog of hot smoke”.

Zoe then said she felt pain for the first time and she looked down to find her dress on fire. Brian then put the fire out with his bare hands.

“So, if my legs were hurting, you can imagine how his hands felt,” Zoe said.

Zoe said five children appeared from the smog and then a car, which she believed would be their rescue vehicle.

“By the time we had the five children in the car and three adults, we realised there was no room for us.

"We asked them to open the boot and the man opened the boot and we climbed in”.

As the car attempted to escape the wildfire, Zoe realised her hair and dress had caught fire once more.

“Brian was trying to put out my dress and I was trying to put out my face as my hair had started to melt into my face. It smelled like burning wax.

“The next thing I remember was that the car crashed into a tree and Brian fell out onto the road. I tried to grab him back but I couldn’t reach him.

“He just fell into flames right in front of me and screamed ‘why?’ which is the last thing that Brian ever said. And that was it, he was gone, he just disappeared”.

Zoe didn’t believe she would survive as she was “in her own little oven, and my hand was melting - I can’t describe the excruciating pain.

“I kept calling out Brian’s name as I thought the last thing he would hear is the person who loved him more than anything in the world calling his name.

“At the stage that I was found, I believe I was rescued because I was calling out Brian’s name."

When rescued by a man, Zoe said he thought she was dead and only realised she had survived when one of her eyes blinked. “The other side of my face was totally melted”.

Zoe said it has taken “a lot of therapy” to get over the sound of wind, which reminded her of being in the boot of the car.

“When the weather would suddenly change, that was it for me,” Zoe said.

Zoe admitted she was still haunted by the fact that she was rescued and Brian wasn't despite being just metres apart.

“It’s now less of a haunting but more of an ongoing query of why am I still here and those that I love are gone”.

Zoe said she tried to “delete” the image of Brian dying in front of her from her mind as a way of trying to rationalise what she experienced.

Just three weeks after her husband died, Zoe’s father also passed away.

Zoe faced a gruelling recovery including learning to walk again and regaining the use of all her limbs, facing “major surgery” every two to three days.

Zoe said that while she was “fully responsive” while leaving hospital in Greece, she entered a “feverish state of delirium” as it transpired she had acquired a rare form of sepsis that “one in a million people in Europe get”.

Zoe’s family were told she may not survive.

“Thank God I was in a coma and unaware of this at the time,” Zoe said.

She said she has “come on leaps and bounds” since and credited her resilience to being “bloody stubborn”.

“When you read the book and see how much effort was put into keeping me alive; I felt like I would be leaving them down if I let go”.

Zoe said she is doing “okay” and that bringing out the book is a strange experience as she has “been living under a rock for the last two years”.

Tattoos have helped Zoe regain “ownership of her body and skin” as she said “I can wear clothes again and I don’t have to go around dressed like a nun. Pre-fire Zoe wouldn’t be dressed like a nun”.

As the Smoke Clears by Zoe Holohan is published by Gill Books, priced €16.

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