Anger rises in Greece after fatal train crash
After years of pandemic-forced cancellations, Athens hosted Carnival last weekend and dozens of Greeks flocked to celebrate. Vaios Vlachos and his girlfriend, who dressed up as marble busts, were among them before rushing off on Tuesday to catch an overnight train that would bring them back in time for work the next morning.
But shortly before midnight, the train they and hundreds of others traveling collided with a freight train near Tempe in northern Greece, killing 47 people, the worst train crash in the country’s history. Mr Vlachos, 32, was still missing on Wednesday evening and his girlfriend was in an intensive care unit.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Mr Vlachos’ brother, Evangelos, adding that as time goes on he loses hope of finding his brother alive. “Every hour feels like poison.”
Greece is expected to hold a general election in the coming weeks, and while it’s not yet clear if or how the crash would affect it, there were signs the crash was reverberating in a country that has the worst rail 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 crash site, and in Thessaloniki to the north. The Panhellenic Federation of Railway Employees declared a 24-hour strike, so no trains were running in Greece on Thursday.
The passenger train was carrying around 350 people, and 57 are still in hospital, some of them in intensive care. It is not known how many people are missing.
Greek Health Minister Thanos Plevris said many of the passengers were young people or students who may have used a three-day holiday weekend to celebrate Carnival, the period of festivities just before the Lent. Thessaloniki, the destination of the train, is the second largest city in Greece and is known as a university city hosting tens of thousands of students.
On Wednesday evening, Georgios Smirnopoulos, a taxi driver in Thessaloniki, drove past the city’s Aristotle University, the country’s largest, and pointed to it, wondering if any of the crash victims there had studied.
“It was a lot of students, young people,” he said. “Today is a tragic day.”
Mr Vlachos and his girlfriend, who have been together for years, traveled to the capital with their handcrafted costumes. They usually travel between Athens and Thessaloniki by car, Mr Vlachos’ brother said, but rising petrol prices prompted them to take the train.
“To save money,” Mr. Vlachos said. “And because they thought it was safer.”
Some of the bodies have not yet been identified because the accident was so violent that they are unrecognizable. Mr Vlachos’ mother gave doctors a sample of her blood in case they needed it for a DNA identification of her son.
As rescuers removed the remains of a wreckage victim from the engines of both trains, one of the workers said it was impossible to know who it was. Thursday, some still hoped that it was not their brother, sister or friend.
“We don’t know what happened to her,” Christina Mitska said of her 22-year-old sister, Ifigeneia Mitska. “No one saw her.”
Across Greece, anger has intensified over the country’s dismal track record on rail safety. The two trains had been running towards each other for 12 minutes before colliding, according to the head of the Greek railway workers’ union.
A railway official said the electronic monitoring and warning systems along the track were not working properly, partly because of budgetary problems and partly because the system was not fully operational to warn such accidents. The government has announced an independent investigation into the cause of the disaster.
Mr Vlachos, awaiting news from his brother, said it was a tragedy that the security systems that could have saved people’s lives were not in place. “If we lost it,” he said, “I don’t think the state or any state can make up for something like that.”
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