April 14. 2024. 5:42

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Greece train crash: Death toll of 43 set to rise, protests in Athens

The death toll from the head-on collision of two trains in central Greece is likely to rise with officials acknowledging that scores of people have yet to be accounted for nearly 24 hours after it left at least 43 dead and many more injured.

Rescue services worked against the clock to find survivors, and many of the dead were students. By midmorning on Wednesday 35 bodies had been taken to the general hospital in Larissa, the nearest town, some burned beyond recognition, forcing relatives to give DNA samples.

In Athens, several hundred members of left-wing groups marched late Wednesday to protest over the train deaths. Minor clashes broke out as some protesters threw stones at the offices of Greece’s rail operator and riot police, and set rubbish bins on fire. No arrests or injuries were reported.

“We find ourselves in front of an unimaginable tragedy,” Greece’s president, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, said in a statement. “We are mainly mourning young people.”

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Late on Wednesday, Larissa’s chief coroner, Roubini Leondari, said 43 bodies had been brought to her for examination and would require DNA identification.

As condolences poured in from around the world, the questions mounted over the crash near a gorge about 380km (235 miles) north of Athens. “We have to ask why?” said Sotiris Raftopoulos, the president of the Panhellenic association of retired railway workers. “How could this tragedy happen?”

More than 30 people have been killed, and many more injured, after two trains collided head-on outside of Larissa, Greece. Video: Reuters

The two trains – one carrying 342 passengers, the other transporting cargo from Thessaloniki to Larissa – collided at 11.20pm on Tuesday outside the town of Tempe after the Thessaloniki-bound night train, which had set out from Athens, inexplicably switched lanes and diverged to the freight track.

The two trains then travelled for several kilometres along the same track before colliding at high speed. Witnesses at the scene described the front two carriages of the passenger train, where most of the student victims were seated, as being completely destroyed.

On impact the wagons exploded into flames, sending huge sheets of steel into the air. Survivors later spoke of being ejected from carriage windows; others described how they had to struggle through plumes of acrid smoke to free themselves after the train buckled. Many were subsequently caught on camera in the wreckage disoriented and dazed.

“A lot of passengers didn’t understand what exactly had happened because they were asleep,” one survivor was quoted as telling the state news agency ANA-MPA. “I was sleeping, too, and the sudden breaking shook [me awake]. When we realised what had happened, we tried to get out of the wagons, and when we managed that, we saw the chaos.”

From early on, the spotlight fell not only on a detained stationmaster – blamed for the “human error” that caused the collision – but, increasingly, also the dire state of the nation’s railways.

Announcing his resignation after visiting the site of the crash, the Greek transport minister, Kostas Karamanlis, said the network was so flawed it did “not befit the 21st century”. “When something so tragic happens, it is impossible to continue and pretend like it didn’t happen,” he told reporters.

Stepping down was not only “a mark of respect toward the memory of the people who died so unfairly” but, he added, an assumption of responsibility “for the Greek state’s and Greek political system’s mistakes over the course of history”.

The Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who also rushed to Tempe, called a three-day period of official mourning, ordering flags to fly at half mast.

Pledging a full, independent investigation, Mr Mitsotakis called the collision “a horrific rail accident without precedent in our country”.

Authorities arrested the stationmaster at the train’s last stop, in the city of Larissa. The arrested stationmaster, described as being in his late 50s with more than four decades of experience on the railways, was charged with involuntary manslaughter and unintentionally causing mass grievous bodily harm.

A police investigation was also launched into the cause of the crash. A public prosecutor tasked with overseeing the inquiry, said witnesses had begun giving evidence. – Agencies