Greece train collision: Anger erupts across the country as death toll rises to 46

A crane, firefighters and rescuers operate after a collision in Tempe near Larissa city, Greece, Wednesday, March 1, 2023.
A crane, firefighters and rescuers operate after a collision in Tempe near Larissa city, Greece, Wednesday, March 1, 2023. Copyright AP
By Euronews with AP
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Greece began three days of national mourning on Wednesday, while flags flew at half-mast outside all European Commission buildings in Brussels.

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Protests have erupted across Greece as anger grows over Wednesday's train crash that left at least 46 people dead and more than 70 injured. It's the worst rail disaster in the country's history. 

In the capital Athens, several hundred students protested outside the headquarters of the national rail service, Hellenic Train. What began peacefully turned more confrontational with riot police using tear gas to disperse stone-throwing protesters. No arrests were recorded. 

Similar protests occurred across the country, including in Thessaloniki and the northern city of Larissa, near where the passenger train carrying hundreds of people crashed into an oncoming freight train.

Railway workers' associations called strikes, halting national rail services and the subway in Athens, to protest working conditions and what they described as a lack of modernization of the Greek rail system. 

A stationmaster arrested following the rail disaster is due to appear in court Thursday as a judicial inquiry tries to establish why the two trains travelling in opposite directions were on the same track.

Transport Minister Kostas Karamanlis resigned following the crash, and his replacement will be tasked with setting up an independent inquiry looking into the causes of the accident.

“Responsibility will be assigned,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a televised address late Wednesday after visiting the scene of the collision. “We will work so that the words ‘never again’ ... will not remain an empty pledge. That I promise you.”

Students returning to Thessaloniki

Multiple cars derailed and at least three burst into flames after the collision in the early hours of the morning outside the town of Tempe. Rescue crews illuminated the scene with floodlights before dawn as they searched frantically through the twisted, smoking wreckage for survivors.

Many of those killed in the crash were university students returning to Thessaloniki from carnival celebrations.

Survivors said several passengers were thrown through the windows of the train cars due to the impact. They said others fought to free themselves after the passenger train buckled, slamming into a field near a gorge where major highway and rail tunnels are located.

“There were many big pieces of steel," said Vassilis Polyzos, a local resident who was one of the first people on the scene. "The trains were completely destroyed, both passenger and freight trains.”

He said dazed and disoriented people were escaping out of the train's rear cars as he arrived.

“People, naturally, were scared - very scared,” he said. “They were looking around, searching; they didn't know where they were."

The trains crashed just before the Vale of Tempe, a gorge that separates the regions of Thessaly and Macedonia. Costas Agorastos, the regional governor of the Thessaly area, told Greece's Skai television the two trains crashed head-on at high speed.

“Carriage one and two no longer exist, and the third has derailed,” he said.

Vaggelis Kousioras/Copyright 2023 The AP
Firefighters and rescuers operate after a collision in Tempe near Larissa city, Greece, Wednesday, March 1, 2023.Vaggelis Kousioras/Copyright 2023 The AP

Rescuers wearing headlamps worked in thick smoke, pulling pieces of mangled metal from the cars to search for trapped people. Others scoured the field with flashlights and checked underneath the wreckage. Several of the dead are believed to have been found in the restaurant area near the front of the passenger train.

Hospital officials in the nearby city of Larissa said at least 25 of those hurt had serious injuries.

“The evacuation process is ongoing and is being carried out under very difficult conditions due to the severity of the collision between the two trains,” said Vassilis Varthakoyiannis, a spokesperson for Greece’s firefighting service.

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Ioannis Xanthopoulos, head of the rescue team in Larisa, added that a fire made rescue efforts "really difficult." 

"The firefighters put out the fire but we were not able to get there quickly because the heat was terrible."

The possible cause of the collision was not immediately clear. Two rail officials were being questioned by police but had not been detained.

While visiting the crash site, the country’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis promised: "We will find the causes of this tragedy and do everything in our power to prevent something like this from ever happening again."

Passengers with minor injuries or who were unharmed were transported by bus to Thessaloniki, 130 kilometres to the north. Police took their names as they arrived, in an effort to track anyone who may be missing.

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A teenage survivor who did not give his name told reporters that just before the crash he felt strong braking and saw sparks and then there was a sudden stop.

“Our carriage didn’t derail, but the ones in front did and were smashed,” he said, visibly shaken.

He added that the first car caught fire and that he used a bag to break the window of his car, the fourth, and escape.

Rail operator Hellenic Train said the northbound passenger train from Athens to Thessaloniki, Greece's second-largest city, had about 350 passengers on board.

Agorastos described the collision on state television as “very powerful" and said it was “a terrible night.”

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“The front section of the train was smashed. ... We’re getting cranes to come in and special lifting equipment clear the debris and lift the rail cars. There's debris flung all around the crash site."

Officials said the army had been contacted to assist.

Hellenic Train, which has added highspeed services in recent years, is operated by Italy's FS Group, which runs rail services in several European countries.

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