World news

Greece in mourning after dozens die in horror train collision

Firefighters and rescuers look for bodies in the wreckage (AP Photo/Vaggelis Kousioras)
Costas Kantouris and Nicholas Paphitis, Associated Press

Rescuers searched for survivors on Wednesday in the mangled, burned-out wreckage of two trains that slammed into each other in northern Greece, killing at least 43 people and crumpling carriages into twisted steel knots in the country’s deadliest rail crash.

The impact just before midnight on Tuesday threw some passengers into ceilings and out of the windows.

“My head hit the roof of the carriage with the jolt,” Stefanos Gogakos, who was in a rear car, told state broadcaster ERT. He said windows shattered, showering passengers with glass.

Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called the collision of the passenger train and a freight train “a horrific rail accident without precedent in our country,” and pledged a full, independent investigation.

Greece Train Collision
Rescuers stand near debris of the trains after the collision (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)

He said it appears the crash was “mainly due to a tragic human error”.

The train from Athens to Thessaloniki was carrying 350 passengers, many of them students returning from raucous celebrations for the pre-Lent festival of Carnival.

While the track is double, both trains were travelling in opposite directions on the same line near the Vale of Tempe, a river valley about 235 miles north of Athens.

Authorities arrested the stationmaster at the train’s last stop, in the city of Larissa.

Greece Train Collision
Debris from the trains lies on the rail lines after the collision (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)

They did not release the man’s name or the reason for the arrest, but the stationmaster is responsible for rail traffic on that stretch of the tracks.

Transportation minister Kostas Karamanlis resigned, saying he was stepping down “as a basic indication of respect for the memory of the people who died so unfairly”.

Mr Karamanlis said he had made “every effort” to improve a railway system that had been “in a state that doesn’t befit the 21st century”.

But, he added, “When something this tragic happens it’s impossible to continue as if nothing has happened”.

Greece Train Collision
Greece’s prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, second left, accompanied by transport minister Kostas Karamanlis, left, visits the scene of the crash (Dimitris Papamitsos/Greek Prime Minister’s Office via AP)

On Wednesday, rescuers turned to cranes and other heavy machinery to start moving large pieces of the trains, revealing more bodies and dismembered remains.

Larissa’s chief coroner, Roubini Leondari, said that so far 43 bodies had been brought to her for examination, and would require DNA identification as they were largely disfigured.

“Most (of the bodies) are young people,” she told ERT. “They are in very bad condition.”

Vassilis Polyzos, a local resident who said he was one of the first people on the scene, said both trains “were completely destroyed”.

APTOPIX Greece Train Collision
Firefighters and rescuers look for bodies in the wreckage (AP Photo/Vaggelis Kousioras)

“There were many big pieces of steel,” he said.

Rescuer Lazaros Sarianidis told ERT that crews were “very carefully” trying to disentangle steel, sheet metal and other material that was twisted together by the crash. “It will take a long time,” he said.

Greece’s firefighting service said 57 people remained in hospital late on Wednesday, including six in intensive care.

More than 15 others were discharged after receiving initial treatment.

More than 200 people who were unharmed or suffered minor injuries were taken by bus to Thessaloniki, 80 miles to the north.

Police took their names as they arrived, in an effort to track anyone who may be missing.

Eight rail employees were among those killed in the crash, including the two drivers of the freight train and the two drivers of the passenger train, according to Greek railroad workers’ union president Yannis Nitsas.

Emergency workers found several bodies dozens of feet away from the carriages, ERT reported.

A teenage survivor, who did not give his name to reporters, said that just before the crash he felt sudden 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 used a bag to break the window of his car, the fourth, and escape.

Mr Gogakos said the crash felt like an explosion, and some smoke entered the carriage. He said some passengers escaped through windows but that after a few minutes, crew members were able to open the doors and let people out.

Multiple cars derailed and at least one burst into flames.

“Temperatures reached 1,300 degrees Celsius, which makes it even more difficult to identify the people who were in it,” fire service spokesperson Vassilis Varthakoyiannis said.

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 she was cut off.

“She told me, ‘we’re on fire – my hair is burning,'” he told ERT, without giving his name.

Many of the passengers were students returning to Thessaloniki from the Carnival celebrations, but officials said no detailed passenger list was available.

This year was the first time the festival was celebrated in full since the start of the pandemic 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.

Visiting the accident scene, Mr Mitsotakis said the government must help the injured recover and identify the dead.

“I can guarantee one thing: We will find out the causes of this tragedy and we will do all that’s in our power so that something like this never happens again,” he said.

Tuesday’s was Greece’s worst rail crash since 1968, when 34 people were killed in a crash in the southern Peloponnese region.

Greek president Katerina Sakellaropoulou broke off an official visit to Moldova to visit the scene, laying flowers beside the wreckage.

Pope Francis offered his condolences to the families of the dead, in a message sent to the president of the Greek bishops conference on his behalf by the Vatican’s secretary of state.

The pontiff “sends the assurance of his prayers to everyone affected by this tragedy,” the message said.

Condolences poured in from all over the world, including neighbouring Turkey, Greece’s historic regional rival.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed his sorrow and his wishes for a speedy recovery for those injured, a statement from his office said.

Despite the frosty relations between the two Nato nations, Greece’s leadership had called Mr Erdogan last month following a massive earthquake that killed tens of thousands in Turkey last month.

In Athens, several hundred members of left-wing groups marched late Wednesday to protest over the train deaths.

Minor clashes broke out as some protesters threw stones at the offices of Greece’s rail operator and riot police, and set rubbish bins on fire. No arrests or injuries were reported.