Our girl Zoe opens up about her return to Greece to give evidence about the wildfires that took her husband
Zoe Holohan lost her husband Brian O’Callaghan-Westropp in 2018, just four days after their wedding. Now she is returning to Greece to give evidence
Every night without fail for the last four years, Zoe Holohan has been plagued by night terrors and nightmares of the Greek wildfire that killed her beloved husband and changed her life forever.
Tomorrow, the former advertising executive from Dublin will make the difficult journey, travelling back to Athens. She is preparing to give evidence in the court case against officials charged over the devastating blaze, which took the lives of 102 people and resulted in hundreds of injuries.
She admits that she is “filled with dread” at the prospect of the daunting ordeal of giving evidence, but hopes that it may finally bring her some peace, saying: “I want to tell the truth as it happened on that horrific day.”
Ms Holohan and her husband Brian O’Callaghan-Westropp were on their honeymoon in July 2018, just four days after their wedding, when the devastating wildfires closed in on their villa in the resort of Mati, outside Athens.
The couple fled, and along the way, saved four children while running from the flames, and were rescued by a passing driver. With no room left in the car once the children were in, Ms Holohan and Mr O’Callaghan-Westropp squeezed into the open boot.
However, a huge burning branch crashed onto the car and Mr O’Callaghan Westropp fell out and was tragically lost to the flames.
Ms Holohan was rescued just minutes before her own certain death by ‘a shadow of a human who came through the wall of fire’. He was volunteer firefighter Manos Tsaliagos, whom she hopes to meet when she is back in Athens.
She also hopes to be able to be reunited there with her plastic surgeon, Mr Georgis Moutoglis.
“He was the one who saved my life, my hand, my legs and who put my face back together. He is an absolute angel and the person I relied on to keep me alive.”
Every night, no matter how tired he was after his shift at the hospital, Mr Moutoglis would come into her room to check if she was asleep, she said, adding: “I wouldn’t sleep until I saw him. You become childlike when you’re in that situation.
“He is an intensely kind man and I’ve kept in touch with him.”
Ms Holohan says she is giving evidence at the trial in honour of her beloved husband of just four days, explaining: “I want to remind people that Brian was a very important person to an awful lot of people. I don’t want him to be forgotten.”
She will make the journey back to Greece with the older brother she calls her “bodyguard”.
The 21 defendants facing trial over the fire include the former local governor, as well as high-ranking municipal, civil protection, fire service and police officials.
A 65-year-old man suspected of having started the wildfires after he burned wood in his garden is also facing charges.
It will not be her first time back since Brian’s death – in early December 2019, she returned to Athens to give her first testimony in the pre-trial.
“It was actually an extraordinarily cathartic moment for me,” she said, of the chance to tell her story that day in its entirety, explaining she feels she has come a long way in her recovery since then.
“I was struggling with post-traumatic stress, with flashbacks, and the nightmares have never gone away – every night without fail, that haunting doesn’t just disappear.”
“But when I went and gave my first testimony I felt this huge lift, like a weight had been taken off my shoulders as for four and a half hours I described every single little detail.”
In particular, she says, she appreciated being able to tell the judge about her husband, Brian, whom she calls her “soul mate”.
Halfway through her testimony to the court of his actions in rescuing the children that day, everybody in the court was emotional, including her translator, who wept as she told her: “There you go, it’s in writing – your husband was a hero. He carried those children to safety.”
“He saved those children’s lives while we were trying to escape. What an amazing human being,” said Zoe.
“He wanted to make the world a better place and he had this tremendous kindness. Even to this day, I am contacted by people who were impacted by him and who tell me things like: ‘he helped me get a job’. He was just one of those people who was quietly and constantly helping others behind the scenes. That’s who I fell in love with. I want people to understand that this wasn’t just some Joe Soap. He was important.”
Not being a Greek national, she feels it is “not appropriate” for her to make any comment about the conduct of the local government leading up to the fire.
She admits that while some of the information which came out after the blaze has made her feel “very angry”, she is trying very hard not to let anger take over her life.
“But there are a lot of people who are very angry because lives have been taken, there have been life-changing injuries, homes have been destroyed and livelihoods – everything was nuked,” she said.
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