Anger in Greece over poor railway safety increased on Thursday as the death toll from one of the country’s worst train crashes in recent years rose to 57.
Protesters poured into the streets after the head-on collision between a passenger train carrying more than 350 people and a freight train Tuesday evening in Tempi, near the town of Larissa.
Protesters clashed with police in the capital Athens, the country’s transport minister resigned in the aftermath of the tragedy and a railway workers’ union is going on strike, accusing the government of “disrespect” in the industry.
Another 48 people are in hospital as a result of the crash, which left overturned carriages and scorched debris. Six of the injured people being treated are in critical condition due to head injuries and severe burns, public broadcaster ERT reported Thursday.
After a train station manager in Larissa was arrested in connection with the collision, Greek authorities also released striking audio recordings on Thursday showing one of the train drivers being instructed to ignore a red light.
“Drive through the red traffic light exit to the traffic light entrance of Neon Poron”, you hear the station master say.
“Vasilis, am I ready to go?” the engineer responds, to which the engineer says, “Go, go.”
In a second conversation, you can hear how the station master orders an employee to keep one of the trains on the same track.
“Shall I turn it now?” asks the employee.
“No, no, because 1564 is on this route,” says the station master.
The stationmaster has been charged with negligent mass killing and negligent infliction of grievous bodily harm. At the time of his arrest, he blames the collision on a technical defect, although he later admitted “to have made a mistake”.
Protesters once again gathered outside the headquarters of Greek railway company Hellenic Train in Athens on Thursday evening in a demonstration organized by student and workers unions.
Police were already present outside Hellenic Train headquarters before the protesters arrived. The protest was peaceful after unrest on Wednesday in which protesters clashed with police.
Most of the passengers involved in the accident were young, a local hospital told ERT. The accident came shortly after a holiday weekend.
Search and rescue operations will continue at the scene of the crash on Thursday and Friday, the fire service said.
Meanwhile, relatives of the missing are still awaiting news of their loved ones as the identification process continues at Larissa General Hospital.
Dimitris Bournazis, who is trying to get news about his father and brother, previously told Greek media that no one has given him any information. Bournazis said he tried to contact the company to find out where his relatives were on the train at the time of the crash. He said he called the Hellenic Train offices three times, but no one called him back.
“The Prime Minister and the Minister of Health were here yesterday. Why? To do something? Explain what? Where are they today?” Bournazis told Greek broadcaster SKAI, adding that “no one has given us any information, no one knows how many people were actually inside.”
“We can’t blame just one person for a mistake. Where is everyone now? They are all waiting for the election to speak,” he said.
Speaking to ERT, passenger Andreas Alikaniotis, who was in the second carriage during the collision, described the moments after the crash.
“What we did was break the glass, which was already cracked, and throw the luggage outside the carriage so we can land somewhere soft,” he told ERT, describing how he helped about 10 people escape.
“We jumped 3 to 4 meters,” he added, “first the more seriously injured and then us with lighter injuries”
Alikaniotis added that he remembers pulling two or three girls up and helping them get to the window to jump. “There was panic,” he added.
According to a 2022 report by the European Union Agency for Railways, Greece has a weak track record in rail passenger safety compared to other countries in Europe, with the highest number of fatalities per million train kilometers from 2018 to 2020 among 28 countries on the continent.
In an extraordinary meeting, the Greek Federation of Railway Workers unanimously decided to start a 24-hour strike on Thursday to denounce poor working conditions and chronic understaffing.
It accused the federal government of “disrespect” to the railways for causing the crash, saying that “more permanent staff, better training and, above all, the implementation of modern safety systems are being permanently thrown into the trash.”
Separately, another 24-hour strike was announced by Greek metro workers, who said in a statement: “There are no words to describe such a tragedy.”
Greece’s transport minister Kostas Karamanlis said the railway system the government inherited was “not up to 21st century standards” when he resigned from his post on Wednesday.
In a televised address following a visit to the crash site, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the collision was “mainly” due to “tragic human error”.
He said the transport minister’s decision to resign was honorable, adding that the heads of Hellenic Railways Organization and its subsidiary ERGOSE have also submitted their resignations.
Condolences pour in from all over the world, while a three-day mourning period is underway in Greece.
Britain’s King Charles said in a statement that he and his wife Camilla, Queen Consort, are “deeply shocked and deeply saddened by the news of the terrible accident”.
French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted: “My thoughts go out to the families of the victims of the terrible accident that happened last night near Larissa. France stands with the Greeks.”