TEMPE, Greece (AP) — Rescuers searched into the night Wednesday for survivors amid the mangled, charred wreckage of two trains that collided in northern Greece, killing at least 43 people and causing carriages to crash into twisted steel knots in the country’s worst train crash. accident
The impact, which occurred just before midnight on Tuesday, threw some passengers onto roofs and windows.
“My head hit the roof of the car with a wobble,” Stephanos Kokakos, who was in a rear car, told state broadcaster ERT. He said windows were broken and riders were showered with glass.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called the collision between a passenger train and a freight train “a terrible train accident without precedent in our country” and promised a full, independent investigation.
He said the crash appeared to be “primarily due to a tragic human error,” but did not elaborate.
The train from Athens to Thessaloniki was carrying 350 passengers, many of them students returning from Carnival celebrations.. When the track is doubled, the two trains travel in opposite directions on the same track near Tempe Vale, a river valley about 380 kilometers (235 mi) north of Athens.
Arrest of Station Master; Minister resigns
Officials arrested the station master at the train’s last stop in Larissa. They did not release the man’s name or the reason for his arrest, but the station master is responsible for train traffic on the line. He is due to appear before a prosecutor on Thursday to be formally charged.
Transport Minister Kostas Karamanlis resigned, saying he was stepping down as a “fundamental sign of respect for the memory of those who died unjustly”.
Karamanlis said he had made “every effort” to upgrade the railway system, which was ill-suited to the 21st century.
But, he added, “If something this tragic happens, we cannot continue as if nothing happened.”
The union representing rail workers announced a 24-hour strike on Thursday, while protests by left-wing groups erupted in Athens late Wednesday. Athens metro workers have also called for a 24-hour strike on Thursday, saying they face the same problems as railway workers.
Debris makes rescue efforts difficult
Emergency crews used cranes and other heavy machinery to move large sections of trains, revealing more bodies and mangled remains. The operation would continue through the night, with firefighters making effortless progress into the rubble.
“There are unlikely to be any survivors, but hope dies last,” rescuer Nikos Zigoris said.
Rubini Leontari, Larisa’s chief coroner, said 43 bodies had been brought to him for examination and DNA identification was needed because they were mostly decomposed.
“Most (of the bodies) are young people,” he told ERT. “They’re in really bad shape.”
Greece’s fire service said 57 people, including six in intensive care, had been hospitalized late Wednesday. More than 15 others were discharged after treatment.
More than 200 people, unharmed or with minor injuries, were taken by bus to Thessaloniki, 130 kilometers (80 mi) to the north. In an effort to track down the missing, the police took their names as they arrived.
Hellenic Rail, which operates all passenger and freight trains in Greece, offered its “heartfelt condolences” to the families of the victims, including those that were hit. The company is owned by the Italian State Railways.
Eight train workers, including two drivers of a freight train and two drivers of a passenger train, were among the dead, said Yannis Nitsos, head of the Greek Railway Workers’ Union.
The union called a one-day strike to protest the long-standing boycott of Greece’s railways by successive governments.
“Unfortunately, our long-standing demands for staff recruitment, better training and above all the use of modern security technology always end up in the waste paper basket,” it said in a statement.
Passengers say the train crash sounded like an explosion
A teenage survivor, who did not give her name to reporters, said she felt sudden braking and saw sparks shortly before the crash – then an abrupt stop.
“Our carriage did not derail, but the carriages in front were derailed and crushed,” he said. He broke the window of the fourth car and used the bag to escape.
Cocakos said the crash felt like an explosion and some smoke entered the cab. Some passengers escaped through windows, but after a few minutes, staff were able to open the doors and let people out, he said.
Several cars derailed and at least one caught fire.
“The temperature reached 1,300 degrees Celsius (2,372 degrees Fahrenheit), which makes it even more difficult to identify the occupants,” said fire service spokesman Vasilis Tradyoannis.
A man trying to find out what happened to his daughter on the train said he had a terrifying phone conversation with her before she was cut off.
“She told me, ‘We’re on fire. … My hair is on fire,'” he told ERT, not giving his name.
Greece goes from carnival to mourning
Many of the passengers were students returning to Thessaloniki from the carnival, but officials said a detailed passenger list was not available. The pre-Lent festival was celebrated this year for the first time since the pandemic began in 2020.
The government declared three days of national mourning from Wednesday, while flags flew at half-mast outside all European Commission buildings in Brussels.
Prime Minister Mitsotakis, who visited the crash site, said the government should help rescue the injured and identify the dead.
“I can guarantee one thing: we will find the causes of this tragedy and do everything in our power to prevent something like this from happening again,” Mitsotakis said.
This is the worst train accident in the country. In 1968, 34 people died in an accident in the southern Peloponnese.
Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, who was on an official visit to Moldova, visited the scene, laying flowers near the ruins.
In a message sent by the Vatican Secretary of State to the head of the Greek Bishops’ Conference, Pope Francis expressed his condolences to the families of the dead.
Condolences poured in from around the world, including neighboring Turkey, Greece’s historic regional rival. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered his condolences and wished the injured a speedy recovery, his office said.
Despite frosty relations between the two NATO members, Greece’s leadership invited Erdogan following last month’s massive earthquake in Turkey that killed tens of thousands.
In Athens, several hundred members of left-wing groups marched late Wednesday to protest the train deaths. Minor clashes broke out as some protesters threw stones at the offices of Greece’s train operator and riot police. No arrests or injuries were reported.
Baphitis is reported from Athens, Greece. Derek Katopoulos in Athens and Patrick Quinn and David Rising in Bangkok contributed to this story.