Anger mounts in Greece after deadly train crash
By Emma Bubola, Iliana Magra and Niki Kitsantonis
After years of pandemic-forced cancellations, Athens last weekend hosted carnival, and scores of Greeks flocked in to celebrate. Vaios Vlachos and Daphne Brella, a couple who had dressed up as marble busts, were among them before they rushed to catch a night train Tuesday that would get them home in time for work the next morning.
But shortly before midnight, the train that they and hundreds of others were traveling on collided with a freight train near Tempe, in northern Greece, killing 57 people, the worst train crash in the country’s history. Vlachos, 32, was still missing as of Wednesday night, and Brella was in an intensive care unit.
“It’s wrenching,” said Vlachos’ brother, Evangelos, adding that, as time passes, he loses hopes of finding his brother alive. “Every hour feels like poison.”
Greece is expected to hold a general election in the coming weeks, and although it was unclear if or how the accident would influence the voting, there were signs that the crash was reverberating in a country that has the worst train safety record in Europe.
On Wednesday in Athens, protesters clashed with police outside the headquarters of Hellenic Train, the company responsible for maintaining Greece’s railways. Demonstrations were also reported in Larissa, near the site of the crash, and Thessaloniki, to the north. The Panhellenic Federation of Railway Employees declared a 24-hour strike, so no trains were running Thursday in Greece.
The passenger train that crashed was carrying about 350 people, and 57 are still hospitalized, including some in intensive care. It is unclear how many people are unaccounted for.
The search for survivors was continuing at the crash site, with cranes lifting out sections of two carriages so that rescuers could search underneath, an already difficult operation that was complicated by steady rainfall.
The circumstances that led to the two trains traveling down the same track was the focus of frantic arguments and speculation in Greece, but much of what happened remains unclear.
The station manager in Larissa, about 12 miles from the crash site, was taken into custody Wednesday and faced an investigating magistrate, where he was given an extension until Saturday to prepare his defense.
The station manager, 59, has not been publicly identified. He faces charges of manslaughter through neglect and of disrupting the safety of public transport, amid news reports in Greece that he had directed the two trains onto their collision course.
Greek Health Minister Thanos Plevris said many of the passengers were young people or college students who had possibly been taking advantage of a three-day holiday weekend to celebrate carnival, the period of revelry just before Lent. Thessaloniki, the train’s destination, is Greece’s second-largest city, and it is known as a university city hosting tens of thousands of students.
Fourteen of the accident’s victims were still in the hospital as of Thursday morning. One of them, Stergios Mineamis, 28, had been on his way to see his brother in Thessaloniki.
He took the night train because all the others were full, he said. When the train stopped in the city of Larissa, he went to the toilet to smoke a cigarette, he added. Upon returning to his carriage, he said he heard a strong boom, then another and another as the lights went off and smoke filled the carriage. Outside his window, he could see only flames and contorted steel “like blades,” he recalled.
“At every boom I thought I was dead,” he said. “It was a disaster like hell.”
He finally managed to jump off his tilted wagon from a broken window, he added, but his relief was quickly replaced by anger at the officials who showed up at the crash site.
“All of them are responsible for what happened,” he said. “I feel terrible for this country.”
The college students who rushed en masse to a hospital in Thessaloniki to donate blood shared his feelings of rage and distrust. Doctors said that more than 500 people had shown up to give blood, an influx comparable in recent history only to the summer of 2018, when fires ravaged the seaside resort of Mati, in southern Greece.
“This was not a tragedy like a natural disaster, this was perfectly foreseeable,” said Chrysanthos Bouroutzoglou, 20, a music student. “You can have real-time tracking of the burgers you order, how is it possible they did not know where the train was?”
Vlachos and Brella, who have been together for years, headed to the capital with their handcrafted costumes. They usually travel between Athens and Thessaloniki by car, Vlachos’ brother said, but higher gas prices had prompted them to take the train instead.
“To save money,” the brother said. “And because they thought it was safer.”
Some of the bodies have yet to be identified because the crash was so violent, leaving them unrecognizable. Vlachos’ mother gave doctors a sample of her blood in case they needed it for DNA identification.
As rescuers removed the remains of a victim from the wreckage of the two trains’ engines Wednesday, one of the workers said that the body would be impossible to recognize by sight.
Among the family members and friends waiting anxiously for news was Christina Mitska. Her 22-year-old sister, Ifigeneia Mitska, is among the missing. “We don’t know what happened to her,” Mitska said. “No one has seen her.”
Across Greece, anger mounted over the country’s dismal rail safety record. The two trains had raced toward each other for 12 minutes before colliding, according to the head of the federation of railway employees.
A railway official said electronic monitoring and warning systems along the track did not work properly, partly because of budget problems and partly because the system was not fully operational to prevent such accidents. The government has announced an independent investigation into the cause of the disaster.
Vlachos, awaiting word on his brother, said that it was a tragedy that the security systems that might have saved people’s lives were not in place.
“If we have lost him,” he said, “I don’t think that the state or any state can make up for something like that.”