“Unspeakable tragedy” was the phrase used by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the prime minister of Greece, after a passenger train collided with a cargo train on Tuesday, killing at least 57 people. The passenger train was travelling from Athens to Thessaloniki, while the cargo train was coming from the opposite direction on the same track when they collided.
There were at least 342 passengers and 10 crew members on the train headed for Thessaloniki, while there were only two crew members on the cargo train, with the accident happening minutes before midnight. Soon after the collision, the carriages burst into flames and temperatures in one of the carriages rose to about 2,370 degrees Fahrenheit.
Apart from the 57 deaths already recorded, about 50 others are said to be in the hospital receiving treatment. Six of them are in critical condition with head injuries and severe burns. Many of the victims are believed to be University students returning after a holiday. Unfortunately, there are still fears that the death toll could slightly increase.
“It is very difficult what we are experiencing today as a country. We are talking about an unspeakable tragedy. Our thoughts are first and foremost with the victims’ relatives. My sincere condolences to them,” Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Prime minister of Greece, wrote. “Our duty now is to treat the wounded and be by their side. From there, one thing I can guarantee: we will find out the causes of this tragedy and do everything in our power to make sure it never happens again.”
Following the collision, several passengers managed to escape from what many described as one of the deadliest train accidents in the country’s history. One of the surviving passengers said he escaped through the fifth carriage.
“Windows were being smashed and people were screaming… One of the windows caved in from the impact of iron from the other train,” the passenger told Skai TV.
“There was fire next to us. We found a hole and from there we managed to get out. The wagon started to spin, and then it ended up on its side and we got out,” another passenger said. “It was a nightmarish 10 seconds, in the flames. There was panic in the carriage, you couldn’t see around you because of the smoke.”
28-year-old Stergios Minenis, who jumped out for safety, told Reuters that he and others got burnt while trying to escape from the train.
“There was panic … The fire was immediate. As we were turning over, we were being burned; the fire was right and left,” Stergios Minenis said.
While many had survived the tragedy, several others were still missing as of Thursday night. Hence rescuers are working hard to find survivors despite the slim possibility.
“Hope dies last,” rescuers still hopeful of finding survivors
As of Thursday night, rescue officials were still working at the scene of the incident to find at least one survivor, if there was still any. There is also heavy machinery at the scene to move the remains of the trains so that rescuers can thoroughly search the area. In doing all of these, there was little confidence that they would find survivors.
“It’s unlikely there will be survivors, but hope dies last,” Nikos Zygouris, who is part of the rescue operations, said.
Chief coroner of Larissa, Roubini Leondari, said she had received 43 bodies for examination and a DNA test is required to identify the bodies as they were severely disfigured.
“Most are young people,” she told ERT. “They are in very bad condition.”
Family members of some of the victims are waiting patiently to hear a piece of good news, but most of them have ended up receiving the sad news that they’ve lost their loved ones.
A tragedy caused by human error
Although authorities are still investigating the cause of the crash, without being told, one could tell that it was avoidable for one reason. There were two trains on the same track at the same time. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis blamed the incident on “human error” without further explanation.
An unnamed station master in Larissa, responsible for the traffic on the track, was arrested in connection with the crash. He appeared before the prosecutor on Thursday and would be charged to court with manslaughter in the coming days.
Experts in the industry said there was supposed to be a signal light that tells if a track was already occupied. When that happens, the other train is supposed to divert into another track. However, they said the signal systems were not working properly as the Greek rail lines are said to be outdated.
Minister of Transportation, Kostas Karamanlis, announced his resignation on Thursday, saying he would take responsibility for the failed rail system in the country which was “not fit for the 21st century.”
Anger and tears in Greece
Following Tuesday’s crash, rail workers walked off the job on Thursday, saying past and present governments have failed to address the safety issues in the rail industry. In Athens, several people were on the streets to protest against train deaths in the country.
“Pain has turned into anger for the dozens of dead and wounded colleagues and fellow citizens,” the rail workers’ union said in a statement while announcing a strike in protest of the deaths. “The disrespect shown over the years by governments to the Greek railways led to the tragic result.”
While the rail workers are angry with the government, relatives of the victims of Tuesday’s crash are also unhappy with not just the government, but with others responsible for ensuring the safety of travellers on the track.
“Some bastard has to pay for this,” one relative of a victim shouted. Others at the hospital were waiting for the DNA results so they could take the bodies of relatives for burial. Fortunately for others, their relatives survived and have been transported to Thessaloniki. These could not hide their tears of joy.
The government has declared a three-day mourning in honour of the victims of the incident.