“My head hit the roof of the carriage with the shock,” Stefanos Gogakos, who was in a rear car, told state broadcaster ERT. He said the windows were shattered and the riders fell under the glass.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called the collision of the passenger train and a freight train “a horrific train accident without precedent in our country”, and promised a full, independent investigation.
He said it appears the crash was “primarily due to tragic human error” but did not elaborate.
The train from Athens to Thessaloniki carried 350 passengers, many of them students returning from raucous Carnival celebrations. Although the track is double, both trains ran in opposite directions on the same line near the Vale of Tempe, a river valley about 380 kilometers (235 mi) north of Athens.
STATIONMASTER ARRESTED; MINISTER WITHDRAW
Authorities arrested the station master at the last stop of the train, in the town of Larissa. They have not released the name of the man or the reason for the arrest, but the station master is responsible for train traffic on that stretch of track. He is due to appear before the prosecutor on Thursday to be formally charged.
Transport Minister Kostas Karamanlis resigned, saying he stepped down “as a fundamental mark of respect for the memory of the people who died so unfairly”.
Karamanlis said he had made “every effort” to improve a rail system that was “in a state not befitting the 21st century”.
But, he added, “When something so tragic happens, it’s impossible to go on as if nothing happened.”
The union representing train workers announced a 24-hour strike for Thursday, while protests by leftist groups broke out in Athens late on Wednesday.
REVENGE MAKES RESCUE EFFORTS DIFFICULT
Rescuers used cranes and other heavy machinery to move large sections of the trains, uncovering more bodies and dismembered remains. The operation would continue overnight, with firefighters painstakingly going through the wreckage.
“It is unlikely that there will be any survivors, but hope dies last,” says rescue worker Nikos Zygouris.
Larissa’s chief coroner, Roubini Leondari, said 43 bodies had been brought to her for examination and DNA identification was required as they were largely disfigured.
“Most (of the bodies) are young people,” she told ERT. “They are in very bad shape.”
Greece’s fire service said 57 people were hospitalized late on Wednesday, including six in intensive care. More than 15 others were discharged after treatment.
More than 200 people who were unharmed or suffered minor injuries were taken by bus to Thessaloniki, 130 kilometers to the north. Police took down their names when they arrived in an effort to track down any missing.
Hellenic Train, which operates all passenger and freight trains in Greece, including those that collided, expresses its “sincere condolences” to the families of the victims. The company belongs to the Italian State Railways.
According to the president of the Hellenic Railways Union, Yannis Nitsas, eight railway employees were killed, including the two drivers of the freight train and the two drivers of the passenger train.
The union called the one-day strike to protest the chronic neglect of Greek railways by successive governments.
“Unfortunately, our long-standing demands for hiring, better training and, most importantly, the use of modern safety technology always end up in the trash,” it said in a statement.
PASSENGERS SAY the train accident was like an explosion
One surviving teen who did not give his name to reporters said that just before the crash he suddenly felt the brakes and saw sparks – and then there was a sudden stop.
“Our carriage didn’t derail, but those in front of us did derail and were destroyed,” he said, visibly shaken. He used a bag to smash the window of his car, the fourth, and escape.
Gogakos said the crash felt like an explosion and some smoke billowed into the carriage. He said some passengers had escaped through windows, but crew members were able to open the doors and let people out after a few minutes.
Several cars derailed and at least one caught fire.
“Temperatures reached 1,300 degrees Celsius (2,372 Fahrenheit), making it even more difficult to identify the people who were inside,” said fire spokesman Vassilis Varthakoyiannis.
A man trying to find out 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 mentioning his name.
GREECE GOES FROM CARNIVAL TO MOURNING
Many of the passengers were students returning to Thessaloniki from Carnival, but officials said no detailed passenger list was available. This year, the festival, which precedes Lent, was fully celebrated for the first time since the pandemic began in 2020.
The government declared three days of national mourning from Wednesday, as flags flew at half-mast outside all European Commission buildings in Brussels.
Visiting the scene of the accident, Prime Minister Mitsotakis said the government should help recover the injured and identify the dead.
“I can guarantee one thing: we will find out the causes of this tragedy and we will do everything in our power so that nothing like this ever happens again,” Mitsotakis said.
Tuesday was Greece’s worst rail accident since 1968, when 34 people died in an accident in the southern Peloponnese.
Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou cut short an official visit to Moldova to lay flowers next to the wreck.
Pope Francis expressed his condolences to the families of the deceased in a message sent on his behalf by the Vatican’s Secretary of State to the President of the Greek Episcopal Conference.
Condolences poured in from around the world, including neighboring Turkey, Greece’s historic regional rival. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed his sorrow and wished a speedy recovery for the injured, his office said.
Despite frosty relations between the two NATO allies, the Greek leadership had called Erdogan last month following a massive earthquake that killed tens of thousands in Turkey.
In Athens, several hundred members of left-wing groups marched late Wednesday to protest the train deaths. Minor clashes broke out as some protesters threw stones at the offices of the Hellenic Railway Company and set fire to riot police and dumpsters. No arrests or injuries have been reported.
Paphitis reported from Athens, Greece. Derek Gatopoulos in Athens and Patrick Quinn and David Rising in Bangkok contributed to this story.