TEMPE, Greece (AP) — Rescuers searched for survivors Wednesday amid the mangled, charred wreckage of two trains that crashed into each other in northern Greece, killing at least 43 people and crumpling the cars into twisted steel knots in the deadliest rail derailment ever. disasters in the country on record.
Shortly before midnight on Tuesday, several passengers threw themselves from the ceiling and out the windows.
“I hit my head on the roof of the car from the impact,” Stefanos Gogakas, who was in the rear car, told state broadcaster ERT. He said the windows shattered, showering the riders with glass.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called the collision between a passenger and freight train “a terrible rail disaster without precedent in our country” and promised a full independent investigation.
He said the crash appeared to be “largely due to tragic human error.”
The train from Athens to Thessaloniki was carrying 350 passengers, many of them students returning from boisterous carnival celebrations. Although the track is double-tracked, the two trains ran in opposite directions on the same line near the Tempe Valley, a river valley about 380 kilometers (235 mi) north of Athens.
HEAD OF STATION ARRESTED; THE MINISTER RESIGNS
The authorities arrested the station master at the last stop of the train in the city of Larissa. The name of the man and the reason for the detention were not given, but the station master is responsible for the movement of railways on this section of the track.
Transport Minister Kostas Karamanlis resigned, saying he was resigning “out of respect for the memory of the people who died so unjustly”.
Karamanlis said he had made “maximum efforts” to improve the railway system, which was “in a state that does not correspond to the 21st century”.
But, he added, “when something so tragic happens, it is impossible to continue as if nothing happened.”
DEBRIS MAKE RESCUE EQUIPMENT HEAVY
On Wednesday, rescuers used cranes and other heavy equipment to begin moving large parts of the trains, uncovering more bodies and dismembered remains.
Larissa’s chief coroner, Rubini Leandari, said 43 bodies had so far been brought to her for autopsy and would require DNA identification because they were heavily mutilated.
“Most (of the bodies) are young people,” she told ERT. “They are in very bad shape.”
Vassilis Palizas, a local resident who said he was one of the first people to arrive at the scene, said both trains “were completely destroyed”.
“There were a lot of big pieces of steel,” he said.
Rescuer Lazaros Sarianidis told ERT that crews were “very carefully” trying to untangle the steel, sheet metal and other materials that were twisted in the crash. “It’s going to take a long time,” Sarianidis said.
Greece’s fire service said 57 people remained hospitalized Wednesday night, including six in intensive care. More than 15 others were discharged after initial treatment.
More than 200 people, who were unharmed or suffered minor injuries, were taken by bus to Thessaloniki, 130 kilometers (80 miles) to the north. Police took their names when they arrived to look for those who might be missing.
Among the dead as a result of the accident were eight railway workers, including two drivers of a freight train and two drivers of a passenger train, the president of the Greek railway workers’ union Yanis Nitsas said.
Emergency workers found several bodies dozens of meters (feet) from the cars, ERT reports.
PASSENGERS SAY TRAIN EXPLOSION WAS LIKE AN EXPLOSION
The teenage survivor, who did not give his name to reporters, said that just before the crash, he felt sharp braking and saw sparks — and then suddenly stopped.
“Our car didn’t derail, but the ones in front did and were smashed,” he said, visibly shaken. He broke the window in his fourth car with a bag and fled.
Gogakas said the crash sounded like an explosion, and smoke entered the carriage. He said some passengers escaped through the windows, but after a few minutes crew members were able to open the doors and let the people out.
Several cars derailed and at least one caught fire.
“The temperature reached 1,300 degrees Celsius (2,372 Fahrenheit), making it even more difficult to identify the people who were inside,” fire department spokesman Vassilis Vartakayannis said.
A man trying to find out the fate of his daughter, who was traveling on a train, said he had a harrowing phone conversation with her before it was cut short.
“She told me we were on fire. … My hair is on fire,” he told ERT, without 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. This year, the holiday preceding Great Lent took place for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020.
Starting Wednesday, the government announced three days of national mourning, and flags were flown at half-staff near all European Commission buildings in Brussels.
Visiting the accident site, Prime Minister Mitsotakis said that the government should help the victims recover and identify the dead.
“I can guarantee one thing: we will find out the causes of this tragedy and do everything in our power to make sure that something like this never happens again,” Mitsotakis said.
Tuesday was Greece’s worst train accident since 1968, when 34 people were killed in an accident in the southern Peloponnese.
The President of Greece, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, interrupted her official visit to Moldova to visit the scene and laid flowers next to the wreckage.
Pope Francis expressed his condolences to the families of the victims in a message sent on his behalf by the Vatican Secretary of State to the President of the Greek Bishops’ Conference.
The pontiff “sends the assurance of his prayers to all those affected by this tragedy,” the statement said.
Condolences poured in from around the world, including from neighboring Turkey, Greece’s historic regional rival. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed his sadness and wished the wounded a speedy recovery, his office said in a statement.
Despite frosty relations between the two NATO nations, the Greek leadership called Erdogan last month after a powerful earthquake killed tens of thousands of people in Turkey last month.
In Athens, several hundred members of left-wing groups marched on Wednesday evening in protest against the death of trains. There were minor clashes, with some protesters throwing rocks at the offices of the Greek railway operator and the special forces, and setting garbage cans on fire. No arrests or injuries have been reported.