By Nadia Liu
Just before midnight on Feb. 28, a head-on collision between a passenger train and a freight train killed at least 57 people and injured over 85 people near the town of Tempe in northern Greece in the country’s deadliest rail accident ever. The passenger train — traveling from Athens to Thessaloniki — was carrying approximately 350 passengers, the majority of whom were students returning from Carnival, a three-day festival that precedes Lent. The crash flattened and derailed carriages, with at least three carriages bursting into flames.
Among the 57 confirmed dead included eight rail employees, four of which were the drivers of both trains. According to Greece’s firefighting service, there were at least 66 people hospitalized, seven of whom had to go to intensive care units. Fire brigade spokesperson Vassilis Varthakogiannis explained that temperatures inside the carriages that had burst into flames had reached 2,370 degrees Fahrenheit, which made it hard to identify the people inside. Police asked families to submit DNA samples to help with identification, a tedious and slow process.
Officials charged an unnamed 59-year-old stationmaster with negligent homicide and jailed him pending trial. His lawyer, Stephanos Pantzartzidis, told reporters, “Since the first moment, he has assumed responsibility proportionate to him…he is not in a position to say anything else.” However, Pantzartzidis questioned whether more than one stationmaster should have been working in Larissa at the time of the collision. He explained, “For 20 minutes, he was in charge of (train) safety in all central Greece.”
Following the crash, the Transportation Minister Kostas Karamanlis resigned, citing his reason for stepping down as “a basic indication of respect for the memory of the people who died so unfairly.” Karamanlis said he had put “every effort” into improving a railway system that is “in a state that doesn’t befit the 21st century,” but he added, “When something this tragic happens, it’s impossible to continue as if nothing has happened.”
After the accident, protests erupted across the country, including one in central Athens that over 12,000 people attended, demanding better rail safety and accountability by the government. Some of the protests grew violent when a group of masked individuals started throwing rocks, bottles, and firebombs at officers, who then retaliated using tear gas and stun grenades.
Greece’s railway system has long suffered from mismanagement and disrepair, and although the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, originally blamed the crash on human error, he eventually admitted, “I owe everyone, and especially the victims’ relatives, a big apology, both personal and on behalf of all who governed the country for many years. In 2023, it is inconceivable that two trains move in different directions on the same track and no one notices. We cannot, we do not want to, and we must not hide behind human error.”
(Sources: AP News, NY Times, NPR, Reuters)
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