At least 36 people have died and dozens have been injured when two trains collided near the Greek city of Larisa, in the center of the country. The worst rail accident in Greek history occurred when a passenger convoy traveling from Thessaloniki to Athens collided with a freight convoy, according to the Greek fire service. According to preliminary reports, the passenger train had diverted into the wrong lane, where the freight train was running. Between the two trains, according to the Hellenic Train company, 346 passengers and 20 crew members were traveling. The authorities counted 66 hospitalized people early on Thursday, at the University Hospital of Larisa and at the Katerinis hospital, of which six are admitted to the ICU. The Larisa station manager, a 59-year-old man, has been arrested after giving a statement. According to the Reuters agency, the detainee has denied any negligence and has blamed the accident on a possible technical failure.
The trains collided shortly before local midnight (eleven o’clock at night, Spanish peninsular time) between the municipalities of Tempe and Evangelismos, in a valley near Larisa, about 300 kilometers north of Athens. Between Thessaloniki and Athens there are 500 kilometers by road. The wrecked night train used to cover that distance in about six hours, though delays are frequent. In 1972, 19 people were killed when two trains collided head-on on the outskirts of Larisa. “It is an unthinkable tragedy. Our thoughts are with the families of the victims today,” the country’s Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, said from the scene of the accident. “One thing I can guarantee”, he continued, “we are going to find out the causes of this tragedy and do everything in our power so that it never happens again”.
The Minister of Transport and Infrastructure, Kostas Karamanlis, who has submitted his resignation from office, has also traveled to the area. “It is a fact that we received the Greek railway in a state that does not correspond to the 21st century”; Karamanlis said after visiting the crash site, according to the public channel ERT. “In these 3.5 years, we have done everything possible to improve this reality. Unfortunately, these efforts were not enough to prevent such an accident. And this is very hard for all of us and for me personally.”
Greece had never experienced an accident of this magnitude. Three days of mourning have been declared, with flags at half mast in all public buildings and suspension of public celebrations. Since the tragedy was known, relatives and friends of the passengers gathered at the Thessaloniki station. In silence, from 2.30, they received the buses that brought the survivors. At 4:00 a.m., the police went to those who were still waiting to give them the news that no one wanted to receive: everyone had already been evacuated and, therefore, the relatives who had not arrived were hospitalized or dead.
At that same time, the first reporters were able to access the scene of the accident, guided by the police. The journalists were met with grisly scenes. The flames that burned several wagons after the collision were still alive. Thick smoke surrounded four carriages of the passenger train. The first carriage was not even recognizable; the second was totally destroyed; the third was bent like a boomerang, and the fourth was heavily damaged. The mayor of Tempe, Giorgos Manoli, has assured that temperatures of 1,200 to 1,500 degrees Celsius have been recorded in the first three carriages. For several hours, rescuers searched with flashlights for survivors trapped in the carriages. As of 8:00 a.m., the firefighters only loaded bodies in black bags.
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Railway unions and workers in the sector have pointed out the lack of resources as a possible reason for the accident. The president of the machinists’ union, Kostas Genidounias, blamed the lack of maintenance and the absence of automatic prevention systems. “Nothing works. Neither the turn signals, nor the traffic lights, nor the traffic control. If they did, drivers would see red lights and stop on time. We have had enough of saying it,” he said indignantly. For these reasons, drivers depend almost entirely on the information they receive from the heads of the relevant stations, Geridunias stressed.
For its part, the STASY Workers Union (commuter train and subway) said in a statement: “Today we mourn our fellow citizens who died in the train accident in Tempe because some people ignored the workers’ warnings. When the workers spoke of the lack of personnel, of the obsolescence of the facilities and infrastructures, of the insufficient maintenance of the rolling stock, of the deficiencies throughout the entire network, the rulers responded with indifference”.
Greece sold rail operator Trainose (Hellenic Train) to Italy’s Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane in 2017 as part of its international bailout program. According to the Italian company’s website, it is the main provider of passenger and cargo rail transport in Greece and operates daily passenger and commercial routes.
A reporter sent to the scene of the accident spoke on a station of “apocalyptic” scenes. Due to the severity of the collision, debris from the two trains have been thrown a great distance. SKAI station It has shown images of badly damaged railcars with broken windows and thick plumes of smoke, as well as debris strewn across the road.
After the impact of the two convoys, a fire broke out in several of the wagons. “We heard a big Bang, (it was) 10 seconds of nightmare”, explained to the Reuters agency Stergios Minenis, a 28-year-old passenger who jumped to safety from the rubble. “We were spinning around in the wagon until we fell on one side… Then there was panic, cables (everywhere), fire, the fire was immediate, as we turned around, they burned us, the fire was left and right” .
Among the injured are several minors. According to the local press, everything indicates that the trains —both operated by Hellenic Train— were going at high speed at the time of impact, so the respective drivers and other crew members died on the spot. Some 250 people who survived the crash and were unharmed or slightly injured were taken by bus to Thessaloniki, located 130 kilometers north of the crash site.
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