The death toll has risen to at least 43 and a railway worker was arrested on Wednesday after the violent head-on collision of passenger and freight trains near the northern Greek town of Tempe.
More than 80 people have been injured and the Greek government has declared three days of national mourning after the country’s deadliest train crash.
Rail operator Hellenic Train said the passenger train was traveling from Athens to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city and a popular tourist destination that describes itself as the “gateway to the Aegean Sea”. The train was carrying 350 people, including many university students returning home after Carnival, a three-day national holiday that precedes the Christian season of Lent.
Several carriages derailed and at least three caught fire after the two trains collided at high speed just before midnight on Tuesday, authorities said.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis promised an independent investigation and said the accident appeared to be “mostly due to tragic human error”, but did not give details.
Rescue teams spent hours searching the wreckage, listening to the calls of survivors. Cranes were brought in to peel off layers of twisted and burnt steel.
Eight railway workers were killed, including the two drivers of the freight train and the two drivers of the passenger train, said the president of the Greek Union of Railway Workers, Yannis Nitsas.
►Greek firefighters said nearly 60 people remained hospitalized on Wednesday evening, including six in intensive care. Journalist Elli Kasholi told the BBC that 20 to 25 people were missing but some may have gone unnoticed at the scene of the crash.
►Greek Transport Minister Kostas Karamanlis resigned on Wednesday, saying he felt it was his duty to resign out of “respect for the memory of those who died so unjustly”.
►Flags flew at half-mast in front of all European Commission buildings in Brussels.
►Pope Francis, in a message to the president of the Greek Episcopal Conference, offered his condolences.
Station officer arrested
The station master in the town of Larissa, near where two trains collided on Tuesday evening, has been charged with negligent manslaughter and negligent grievous bodily harm, police said. The station master, who is in charge of signaling, denies any wrongdoing and blamed the crash on a possible technical fault, the BBC reported.
A police statement identified the station master only as a 59-year-old man. He is due to appear before a prosecutor on Thursday to be formally charged.
Two other people were arrested for questioning, police said. Authorities did not immediately disclose their connection to the accident and no cause was immediately revealed.
‘It was panic’: Survivors recount horrific times
Some survivors said the collision felt like an earthquake.
“We heard a big bang,” Stergios Minenis, 28, who jumped to safety from the wreckage, told Reuters. “We were turning around in the car until we fell sideways and until the commotion stopped. Then there was the panic. Cables, fire. The fire was immediate. While we turned around, we were burned.”
He described 10-15 seconds of chaos amid dangling cables, shattered windows and flames – “people screaming, people trapped”.
Stefanos Gogakos was in a rear car and said the accident looked like an explosion. He could see flames at the front of the train.
“The glass from the windows shattered and fell on us,” he told public broadcaster ERT. “My head hit the roof of the car with the jolt. Some people started coming out of the windows because there was smoke in the car. The doors were closed, but a few minutes later the staff at the train opened them and we got out.
Greece ranks among the last in rail safety in Europe
Multiple studies over the past few years have determined that Greece is near the peak of European rail accidents per capita. From 2018 to 2020, Greece recorded the highest death rate among 28 European countries, according to the European Union Agency for Railways.
Greek Transport Minister Kostas Karamanlis, who resigned following the disaster, said he had tried to improve a rail system that was “in a state not fit for the 21st century”.
Kostas Genidounias, president of the association of Greek train drivers, told ERT about long-standing problems with electronic systems that are supposed to warn drivers.
“Nothing is working. Everything is happening manually throughout the Athens-Thessaloniki network,” Genidounias said. “Neither the indicators, nor the traffic lights, nor the electronic traffic control work.”
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Confusion, fear in the moments after the accident
“There were a lot of big pieces of steel,” said Vassilis Polyzos, a local resident who said he was one of the first people on the scene. “Trains were completely destroyed, both passenger and freight trains.”
He said dazed and disoriented people escaped from the rear carriages of the train as it arrived.
“People, naturally, were scared – very scared,” he said. “They looked around them, searching; they didn’t know where they were.
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The Prime Minister undertakes to determine the cause of the accident
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who described the accident as “an indescribable tragedy”, visited the area, his office said.
“We will uncover the causes of this tragedy and do everything in our power to make sure it never happens again,” Mitsotakis said.
How did the train crash happen?
The trains crashed just before the Tempe Valley, a gorge that separates the regions of Thessaly and Macedonia, 235 miles north of Athens. Costas Agorastos, the regional governor of Thessaly, told Greek television Skai that the two trains collided head-on at high speed.
“Wagons 1 and 2 no longer exist, and the third has derailed,” he said.
Survivors said the impact threw several passengers through the windows of the cars. They said others fought to free themselves after the passenger train twisted and slammed into a field near the gorge.
Contribute: The Associated Press