Tempe, Greece, March 2 (BNA): Rescuers searched late Wednesday night for survivors amid the wreckage of two burning trains in northern Greece, killing at least 43 and crushing the carriages into twisted knots of steel. The deadliest railway crash in the country.
Just before midnight Tuesday, the blast threw some occupants into ceilings and out windows, the Associated Press reported.
“My head hit the roof of the carriage,” Stefanos Gogakos, who was in a car at the back, told state broadcaster ERT. He said the windows were shattered, flooding the occupants with glass.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called the collision of the passenger train and the freight train “a terrible train accident without precedent in our country”, and vowed a full and independent investigation.
It appears the crash was mainly due to tragic human error, he said, but did not elaborate further.
The train from Athens to Thessaloniki was carrying 350 passengers, many of them students returning from wild carnival festivities. While a double track, both trains were running in opposite directions on the same line near the Vale of Tempe, a river valley about 380 kilometers (235 miles) north of Athens.
The authorities arrested the station manager at the last train station in the city of Larissa. They did not reveal the name of the man or the reason for the arrest, but the stationmaster is responsible for rail traffic on this section of the track. He was due to appear before the public prosecutor on Thursday to be formally charged.
Transport Minister Kostas Karamanlis resigned, saying he was stepping down “as an essential sign of respect for the memory of people who died unjustly”.
Karamanlis said he had made “every effort” to improve the railway system, which was “in a state unworthy of the 21st century”.
But, he added, “when something so tragic happens, it’s impossible to carry on as if nothing had happened.”
The union representing the train workers announced a 24-hour strike on Thursday, while protests by left-wing groups broke out in Athens late Wednesday. Athens metro workers also called a 24-hour strike on Thursday, saying they were facing similar problems as railway employees.
Emergency workers used cranes and other heavy machinery to move large pieces from the train, exposing more bodies and dismembered remains. The operation was to continue overnight, with firefighters painstakingly advancing through the wreckage.
“It is unlikely that there will be survivors, but hope is dying,” said rescuer Nikos Zigoris.
Larisa’s chief forensic pathologist, Rubini Leondari, said 43 bodies had been brought to her for examination and would require DNA identification because they were so disfigured.
“Most (the dead bodies) are young men,” she told ERT. “They are in very bad shape.”
Greece’s fire service said 57 people remained in hospital late Wednesday, including six in intensive care. More than 15 others have been discharged from hospital after receiving treatment.
More than 200 people who were unharmed or with minor injuries were taken by bus to Thessaloniki, 130 kilometers (80 miles) to the north. The police took their names when they arrived, in an effort to track down anyone who might be missing.
Hellenic Train, which operates all passenger and freight trains in Greece, including those that collided, offered its “heartfelt condolences” to the families of the victims. The company belongs to the State Railways of Italy.
Among the dead were eight railway employees, including the two drivers of the freight train and two drivers of the passenger train, said Yannis Nitsas, head of the Hellenic Railway Workers’ Union.
The federation called a one-day strike to protest what it said was chronic neglect of Greece’s railways by successive governments.
“Unfortunately, our longstanding demands for better staffing, training and above all the use of modern safety technology end up in the trash,” she said in a statement.
One of the teenage survivors, whose name was not disclosed, told reporters that just before the accident he felt sudden braking, saw sparks, and then suddenly stopped.
“Our carriage didn’t derail, but the one in front got out and crashed,” he said, looking shaken. He used a briefcase to break his fourth car window and escape.
Gugakos said the crash sounded like an explosion, and some smoke entered the carriage. Some passengers escaped through windows, he said, but after a few minutes, crew members were able to open the doors and let people out.
Multiple cars derailed, and at least one caught fire.
“Temperatures have reached 1,300 degrees Celsius (2,372 degrees Fahrenheit), which makes it even more difficult to identify the people in them,” said fire service spokesman Vassilis Varthakoyannis.
A man who was trying to ascertain the fate of his daughter, who was on the train, said he had a harrowing phone conversation with her before cutting her off.
Without giving his name, he told ERT: “She said to me, ‘We’re on fire…my hair is on fire’.”
Many of the passengers were students returning to Thessaloniki from Carnival, officials said, but no detailed list of passengers was available. This year was the first time that the festival, which precedes Lent, has been celebrated in full since the start of the pandemic in 2020.
The government declared three days of national mourning from Wednesday, while flags were flown at half-staff outside all European Commission buildings in Brussels.
Prime Minister Mitsotakis, visiting the scene, said the government should help the injured recover and identify the dead.
“I can guarantee one thing: we will find out the reasons for this tragedy, and we will do everything we can so that nothing like this happens again,” Mitsotakis said.
This was the deadliest railway crash ever recorded in the country. In 1968, 34 people died in a crash in the southern Peloponnese.
Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou cut short an official visit to Moldova to visit the site of the accident, and laid flowers next to the wreckage.
Pope Francis offered his condolences to the families of the dead in a letter sent by the Vatican’s Secretary of State to the President of the Greek Bishops’ Conference,
Condolences poured in from all over the world, including from neighboring Turkey, Greece’s historic regional rival. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed his sorrow and wishes for a speedy recovery for the injured, according to his office.
Despite the frosty relations between the two NATO members, the Greek leadership called Erdogan last month in the wake of the massive earthquake that killed tens of thousands in Turkey.
In Athens, several hundred members of left-wing groups held a rally on Wednesday night to protest the train deaths. Minor clashes broke out as some demonstrators threw stones at the offices of the Hellenic Railways and riot police and set rubbish bins on fire. There were no reports of arrests or injuries.