Who is responsible? Greece faces hard questions after train wreck.

Rail strikes have halted national rail services in Greece after a deadly crash killed nearly 60 people. Family members are assisting in the search for missing relatives. Officials say the crash will lead to a full safety overhaul of the country’s rail system. 

Vaggelis Kousioras/AP
Firefighters and rescuers search through the wreckage after two trains collided in Tempe, Greece, March 2, 2023. Emergency workers are searching for survivors after a passenger train and a freight train crashed head-on in central Greece just before midnight Tuesday.

Family members awaited the results of DNA testing to identify victims of a train crash that killed nearly 60 people in Greece, as workers went on strike Thursday saying the rail system is outdated, underfunded, and dangerous.

The government has blamed human error, and a railway official was charged with manslaughter.

Emergency crews, meanwhile, inched through the remains of passenger carriages in their search for the dead from Tuesday night’s head-on collision, which has left 57 confirmed dead – a number that rescuers fear will increase.

The collision of a passenger train and a freight train was the country’s deadliest ever, and more than 48 people remained hospitalized – with six in intensive care – most in the central Greek city of Larissa.

Workers, relatives say train system unsafe 

Railway workers’ associations called strikes, halting national rail services and the subway in Athens to protest working conditions and what they described as a dangerous failure to modernize the rail system. A second 24-hour strike was called for Friday.

Two separate protests in central Athens were held by left-wing groups, with one resulting in clashes between stone-throwing youths and riot police. Protests were also held in Thessaloniki and Larissa.

Critics blame a lack of public investment during the deep financial crisis that spanned most of the previous decade and brought Greece to the brink of bankruptcy. It was during the crisis, in 2017, that the rail operator, then heavily losing money, was privatized and bought by Italy’s Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane Group.

Greece has a limited rail network that doesn’t reach much of the country. Despite years of modernization projects, much of the key rail control work is still manually operated.

The head of the engine drivers’ union, Costas Genidounias, said an up-to-date traffic control system was supposed to have been ready three years ago. He said that starting in 2020, union representatives sent legal notices to the company responsible for Greece’s railway infrastructure, OSE, as well as government and regulatory officials, but received no reply.

OSE issued a statement Thursday expressing condolences to the victims’ families but it has not publicly commented on the criticism.

Markos Bekris, a union representative who took part in the peaceful Athens protest Thursday, said the collision was “a crime waiting to happen.”

He argued that Hellenic Train, OSE, and the current and previous governments “share responsibility, as they ignored requests from employees who weekly, daily, raised concerns over health and safety issues and the possibility of a serious accident.”

“A forest of responsibility”

Transportation Minister Kostas Karamanlis resigned following the crash and officials launched a judicial inquiry to determine how two trains traveled in opposite directions on the same track for more than 10 minutes without anyone raising the alarm.

The Larissa station manager was charged Thursday with multiple counts of manslaughter and causing serious physical harm through negligence. His name was not released.

The stationmaster’s lawyer, Stefanos Pandzardzidis, said his client was “devastated” and accepted “his portion of the responsibility.”

“But beyond that ... we must not focus on the tree while there’s a whole forest beyond it,” he said. “There’s a forest of responsibility.”

Mr. Bournazis agreed that the responsibility for the crash should go far beyond the stationmaster.

“We can’t dump all the blame on one person for making one mistake,” he said.

He said the crash should lead to a full safety overhaul of the country’s rail system.

“I’ve lost my brother, my father. That can’t change, I know it,” he said. “But the point is for us not to mourn victims like that again. They bought 50 tickets to death.”

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis pledged in a televised statement Wednesday night to get to the bottom of the disaster.

“Responsibility will be assigned. We will work so that the words ‘never again’ ... will not remain an empty pledge,” he said. “That I promise you.”

“Centimeter by centimeter” 

Relatives of those missing lined up in the rain to assist with identifying the dead. DNA matching was going fast, with at least four families – in the presence of psychologists – receiving confirmation Thursday that their relatives were among the dead, said police spokeswoman Constandia Dimoglidou.

Ms. Dimoglidou said the process usually takes several days but authorities are making an effort to finish by Friday. She said 24 people have been identified through DNA so far. 

Among the dozens of grieving relatives who spent a second day at the hospital awaiting results Thursday was Dimitris Bournazis, whose father and brother remain unaccounted for. He said phone calls to Italian-owned train operator Hellenic Train have been fruitless.

“I’ve been trying since yesterday afternoon to communicate with the company to find out what seat my father was in,” he said. “Nobody has called me back.”

Amid the growing criticism, emergency workers continued their grim recovery effort, proceeding “centimeter by centimeter” through mounds of twisted steel, shattered glass, and scattered luggage, said Fire Service spokesman Yiannis Artopios.

He added that the entire operation was expected to be concluded by midday Friday.

Crash survivor describes fiery escape

About 350 people were on the passenger train, many of them students returning from a holiday weekend and annual Carnival celebrations around Greece.

Andreas Alikaniotis, a survivor, described how he and fellow students escaped from a jackknifed train car as the fire approached, smashing windows and throwing luggage outside to use as a makeshift landing pad.

“It was a steep drop, into a ditch,” Mr. Alikaniotis, who suffered a knee injury, told reporters from his hospital bed in Larissa.

“The lights went out. ... The smoke was suffocating inside the rail car but also outside,” Mr. Alikaniotis said.

He said he was “one of the few around who had not been seriously injured.”

“Me and my friends helped people get out.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Nicholas Paphitis reported from Athens, Greece. Derek Gatopoulos in Athens contributed to this report.

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