The death toll rose to at least 43 and a railroad worker was arrested Wednesday after the fiery head-on collision of passenger and freight trains near the town of Tempe in northern Greece.
More than 80 people were injured, and the Greek government declared three days of national mourning after the country’s deadliest rail 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 carried 350 people, including many university students returning home from Carnival, a three-day national party that precedes the Christian season of Lent.
Multiple cars derailed and at least three burst into flames after the two trains ran into each other at high speed just before midnight Tuesday, authorities said.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis pledged an independent investigation and said the crash appeared to be “mainly due to a tragic human error,” but did not elaborate.
Rescue crews spent hours combing through the wreckage, listening for the calls of survivors. Cranes were brought in to peel away layers of twisted, burned steel.
Eight rail employees were killed, including the two drivers of the freight train and the two drivers of the passenger train, Greek Railroad Workers Union President Yannis Nitsas said.
►Greece’s firefighting service said nearly 60 people remained hospitalized late Wednesday, including six in intensive care. Journalist Elli Kasholi told the BBC that 20 to 25 people were missing but that some may have left the crash scene unnoticed.
►Greek Transport Minister Kostas Karamanlis resigned Wednesday, saying he felt it was his duty to step down out of “respect for the memory of the people who died so unfairly.”
►Flags flew at half-staff outside all European Commission buildings in Brussels.
►Pope Francis, in a message to the president of the Greek bishops conference, offered his condolences.
►Protests broke out late Wednesday in Athens, where several hundred members of left-wing groups marched over the train deaths. No arrests or injuries were reported but some protesters threw stones at Hellenic Train’s offices and set dumpsters on fire.
The stationmaster in the city of Larissa, near where two trains collided Tuesday night, has been accused of manslaughter by negligence and grievous bodily harm by negligence, police said. The stationmaster, who is in charge of signaling, denies wrongdoing and has blamed the accident on a possible technical failure, the BBC reported.
A police statement identified the stationmaster only as a 59-year-old man. He’s due to appear before a prosecutor Thursday to be formally charged.
Two other people have been detained for questioning, police said. Authorities did not immediately reveal their connection to the crash, and no cause was immediately revealed.
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 over in the carriage until we fell on our sides and until the commotion stopped. Then there was panic. Cables, fire. The fire was immediate. As we were turning over we were being burned.”
He described 10 to 15 seconds of chaos amid dangling cables, broken windows and flames – “people screaming, people trapped.”
Stefanos Gogakos was in a rear carriage and said the crash felt like an explosion. He could see flames at the front of the train.
“The glass in the windows shattered and fell on top of us,” he told state broadcaster ERT. “My head hit the roof of the carriage with the jolt. Some people started to climb out through the windows because there was smoke in the carriage. The doors were closed, but in a few minutes train staff opened them and we got out.”
Multiple studies in the past few years have determined Greece is near the top in European rail accidents per capita. From 2018 to 2020, Greece had the highest fatality 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 railway system that had been “in a state that doesn’t befit the 21st century.”
Kostas Genidounias, president of the association of Greek train drivers, told ERT of long-running problems with the electronic systems that are supposed to warn drivers.
“Nothing works. Everything happens manually throughout the Athens-Thessaloniki network,” Genidounias said. “Neither the indicators, nor the traffic lights, nor the electronic traffic control work.”
“There were many big pieces of steel,” said Vassilis Polyzos, a local resident who said he 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.”
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who described the crash as “an unspeakable tragedy,” traveled to the region, his office said.
“We will find out the causes of this tragedy and do everything in our power to make sure it never happens again,” Mitsotakis said.
The trains crashed just before the Vale of Tempe, a gorge that separates the regions of Thessaly and Macedonia, 235 miles north of Athens. Costas Agorastos, the regional governor in Thessaly, told Greece’s Skai Television the two trains collided head-on at high speed.
“Carriage 1 and 2 no longer exist, and the third has derailed,” he said.
Survivors said the impact threw several passengers through the windows of train cars. They said others fought to free themselves after the passenger train buckled and slammed into a field near the gorge.
Contributing: The Associated Press