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Greek rail workers strike over conditions after train collision kills 57

Cranes removing debris from a train collision
Cranes remove debris from the site of a deadly train collision in Tempe, Greece.
(Vaggelis Kousioras / Associated Press)
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Family members lined up to give DNA samples in hopes of identifying victims of a train crash that killed at least 57 people, and workers went on strike Thursday, saying the Greek rail system is outdated, underfunded and dangerous.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 mangled 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 at least 48 people remained hospitalized — with six in intensive care — most in the central Greek city of Larissa.

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Dozens of grieving relatives spent a second day at a Larissa hospital awaiting the results of DNA identification on the bodies, many of which were burned or mangled beyond recognition.

Among them was Dimitris Bournazis, who 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.”

The collision between freight and passenger trains occurred near Tempe, about 235 miles north of Athens. Several train cars derailed.

March 1, 2023

‘Centimeter by centimeter’

Fire Service spokesman Yiannis Artopios said the grim recovery effort was proceeding “centimeter by centimeter.”

“We can see that there are more [bodies] of people there. Unfortunately they are in a very bad condition because of the collision,” Artopios told state television.

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Rescuers were focusing on the restaurant car, which was crushed under the first carriage from the force of the collision, said fire official Vassilios Vathrakogiannis.

“This morning we removed seven burned bodies from that carriage,” he said.

After last month’s fiery freight train crash in Ohio, the state’s two senators, a Democrat and a Republican, are proposing new federal safety regulations for railroad companies.

March 1, 2023

Workers say train system is unsafe

The Larissa station manager arrested after the collision was charged Thursday with multiple counts of manslaughter and causing serious physical harm through negligence, as a judicial inquiry tries to establish how the two trains could be traveling in opposite directions on the same track for more than 10 minutes without anyone raising the alarm.

Railway worker unions called strikes, halting national rail services and the subway in Athens. They are protesting working conditions and what they described as a dangerous failure to modernize the rail system due to 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.

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.

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“In 2020, we started our efforts with industrial action, warning that there were delays and sending legal notices” to the rail company, government officials and regulatory authorities, but to no avail, he said.

Transport Minister Kostas Karamanlis resigned following the crash, his replacement tasked with setting up an independent inquiry looking into the causes of the crash.

“Responsibility will be assigned,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a televised address late Wednesday after visiting the collision site.

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

Supporters of the strike planned to protest in central Athens later Thursday.

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 20-year-old 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.

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“It was a steep drop, into a ditch,” 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,” 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.”

A ‘forest’ of responsibility

Relatives of the victims and still-missing passengers lashed out at government officials and the Italian-owned private rail operator Hellenic Train.

Bournazis, whose father and 15-year-old brother remain unaccounted for, said phone calls to the rail company 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.”

Bournazis said 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.

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

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“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.”

Zelensky and Turkey send condolences

Residents in Larissa lined up to give blood, many waiting in heavy rain for more than an hour, while the city’s hotel association provided free accommodation to relatives of crash victims. Nine bodies have been identified through DNA matches so far, authorities said.

Pope Francis and European leaders sent messages of sympathy in the wake of the crash. Among them were Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, whose country is recovering from devastating earthquakes last month. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sent a message in Greek, writing, “The people of Ukraine share the pain of the families of the victims. We wish a speedy recovery to all the injured.”

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