- Associated Press - Monday, July 23, 2012

TERRADES, Spain — A vacationing French family of five fell or jumped off a seaside cliff during a desperate attempt to escape a raging wildfire, with the father and one of his children plummeting at least 65 feet to their deaths, authorities said Monday.

Flames forced the family and about 150 other tourists out of their cars Sunday night as most were returning home to France, and the group scrambled down hillsides toward the beach in the border town of Portbou to escape the blaze, said Deputy Mayor Elisabet Cortaba.

The fires that broke out Sunday in several parts of the Catalonia region forced more than 1,400 people to stay the night in shelters. Fires were still burning Monday in many places, with roads cut off because of the billowing smoke.

The family became separated from the rest of the group on their way down the hillsides and ended up at the edge of a very steep cliff with only one way out as the fire fanned by heavy winds approached them, Ms. Cortaba said.

They could not climb back up because of the fire, so the mother tried to scale down the crumbly cliff-face, but lost her grip and fell, said Tony Buixeda, the town’s port manager, who was at the scene in a boat and saw the desperate family atop the precipice.

One of the family’s teenage daughters told other rescuers she jumped, but Mr. Buixeda said he did not know whether the rest jumped or fell because he was already swimming toward the mother.

Some witnesses “said they threw themselves off, others said they fell,” Mr. Buixeda said. “The only thing they could do was go to the water.”

The 60-year-old father died instantly after landing on submerged rocks, and his 15-year-old daughter drowned, Ms. Cortaba said.

The mother was in a critical condition Monday with a back injury, and the son and other daughter did not suffer life-threatening injuries. All were fished from the sea by Portbou boaters and their identities were not released, Ms. Cortaba said.

The fire in Portbou broke out when wildfires elsewhere forced the closure of the main highway linking Spain to France. Traffic was diverted to a smaller road via Portbou, where lines of cars safely motored toward the border.

Police determined Monday that someone in the cars had almost certainly thrown a lit cigarette out of a window, which Ms. Cortaba said had then started a fire on the pavement. With parts of Spain enduring one of the driest summers in decades, the fire raged out of control before the cars could leave and officials could shut down the road.

Two other French tourists were also killed by the weekend fires in northeastern Spain that have burned 35 square miles.

Many of the tourists who made it to the beach in Portbou suffered injuries ranging from broken bones and burns in their dash down the hillsides with no well-used paths, Ms. Cortaba said.

Mr. Buixeda said the French family of five “just had bad luck that they went down the wrong way.”



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