Anger in Greece over poor railway safety grew on Thursday, as authorities released audio in which a train driver involved in one of the country’s worst train crashes in recent years was told to ignore a red light.
Demonstrators poured onto the streets after the head-on collision between a passenger train carrying more than 350 people and a freight train on Tuesday evening in Tempi, near the city of Larissa. The death toll from the crash rose to 57 late on Thursday.
Protesters clashed with police in the capital Athens, the country’s transport minister resigned in the wake of the tragedy and a rail workers’ union is going on strike, accusing the government of “disrespect” in the sector.
Another 48 people remain in hospital as a result of the crash, which left toppled carriages and scorched debris in its wake. Six of the injured being treated are in critical condition due to head wounds and serious burns, public broadcaster ERT reported Thursday.
After a train station manager in Larissa was arrested in connection to the collision, Greek authorities on Thursday made public striking dispatch recordings that show one of the train drivers receiving instructions to ignore a red light.
“Proceed through red traffic light exit until traffic light entry of Neon Poron,” the station master is heard saying.
“Vasilis, am I good to go?” the train driver responds, to which the train master says “Go, go.”
In a second conversation, the station master can be heard ordering an employee to keep one of the trains on the same track.
“Shall I turn it now?” the employee asks.
“No, no, because 1564 is on this route,” the station master says.
The station master has been charged with mass deaths through negligence and causing grievous bodily harm through negligence. Upon arrest he blamed the collision on a technical fault, though later admitted to “making a mistake.”
Protests in Athens
Protesters gathered outside the central Athens headquarters of Greek rail company Hellenic Train again on Thursday evening in a demonstration organized by student and worker unions.
Police already had a presence outside the Hellenic Train headquarters before the demonstrators arrived. The protest was peaceful, following unrest on Wednesday in which demonstrators clashed with police.
Most of the passengers involved in the accident were young, a local hospital told ERT. The accident came soon after a holiday weekend.
Search and rescue operations will continue on Thursday and Friday at the site of the crash, according to the Fire Service.
Meanwhile, relatives of those missing are still awaiting news regarding their loved ones as the identification process continues at Larissa General Hospital.
Speaking earlier to Greek media, Dimitris Bournazis, who is trying to get news about his father and brother, said no one has given him any information. Bournazis said he was trying to contact the company to find out where on the train his relatives were sitting at the time of the crash. He said he called the offices of Hellenic Train three times but no one has called him back.
“The prime minister and the health minister came here yesterday. Why? To do what? To explain what? Where are they today?” Bournazis told Greek broadcaster SKAI, adding that “no one has given us any information, no one knows how many people really were inside.”
“We cannot only blame one person for this because of a mistake. Where is everyone else now? They all await the election to speak,” he said.
Speaking to ERT, passenger Andreas Alikaniotis, who was in the second carriage during the collision, described the moments following the crash.
“What we did was to break the glass, which was already cracked, and to throw the luggage outside the carriage, so we can land somewhere soft,” he told ERT, describing how he helped around 10 people escape.
“We jumped 3 to 4 meters,” he added, “first the more seriously injured and then us with lighter injuries”
Alikaniotis added that he remembers pulling up two or three girls and helping them get to the window to jump. “There was panic,” he added.
‘Pain has turned into anger’
Greece has a weak record of railway passenger safety compared with other countries in Europe, recording the highest railway fatality rate per million train kilometers from 2018 to 2020 among 28 nations on the continent, according to a 2022 report from the European Union Agency for Railways.
In an extraordinary meeting, the Greek federation of rail workers decided unanimously to launch the 24-hour strike on Thursday to highlight poor working conditions and chronic understaffing.
It accused the federal government of “disrespect” towards railways for causing the crash, saying “more permanent staff, better training and mainly the implementation of modern security systems, are permanently thrown in the bin.”
Separately, another 24-hour strike was announced by Greek metro workers, who said in a statement: “There are no words to describe such tragedy.”
Greek transport minister Kostas Karamanlis said the railway system the government inherited was “not up to 21st century standards” as he stepped down from his role Wednesday.
In a televised address after visiting the crash site, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the collision was “mainly” due “to tragic human error.”
He said the transport minister’s decision to resign was honorable, and added that the heads of Hellenic Railways Organization and its subsidiary ERGOSE have also submitted their resignations.
Condolences have poured in from across the world, while a three-day period of mourning is under way in Greece.
Britain’s King Charles said in a statement that he and his wife Camilla, Queen Consort, have been “most shocked and profoundly saddened by the news of the dreadful accident.”
French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted: “My thoughts go out to the families of the victims of the terrible accident that took place last night near Larissa. France stands alongside the Greeks.”
CNN’s Heather Chen, Mohammed Tawfeeq, Jennifer Hauser and Max Foster contributed reporting.