TEMPE, Greece (AP) — Rescue workers searched Wednesday through the charred wreckage of two trains that collided in northern Greece, killing at least 36 people and crushing several carriages into knots of twisted steel.
Transport Minister Kostas Karamanlis resigned, saying he felt it was his “duty” to step down “as a basic sign of respect for the memory of people who died so unjustly”.
The cause of the crash near Tempe Vale in a river valley about 380 kilometers (235 miles) north of Athens was not immediately clear, but the station master in the nearby town of Larissa was arrested on Wednesday. Police have not released his name. Two others have been detained for questioning.
It was not clear at what speed the passenger train and freight train were traveling when they collided shortly before midnight on Tuesday, but survivors said several passengers were hit through the windows of the carriages. State broadcaster ERT quoted rescue workers as saying they found the bodies of some of the victims 30-40 meters (100-130 feet) from the site of the attack.
Passengers say the train crash sounded like an explosion
A teenage survivor, who did not give her name to reporters, said she felt sudden braking and saw sparks shortly before the crash – then an abrupt stop.
“Our carriage did not derail, but the carriages in front were derailed and crushed,” he said. He broke the window of the fourth car and used the bag to escape.
Stefanos Kokakos, who was in the rear carriage, said he felt the crash explode and saw flames at the front of the train.
“The glass in the windows broke and fell on top of us,” he told ERT. “My head hit the roof of the car with a wobble. Some started climbing out of the window as there was smoke in the carriage. The doors were closed, but within minutes the train staff opened them and we stepped out.
Several cars derailed and at least one caught fire.
“The temperature reached 1,300 degrees Celsius (2,372 Fahrenheit), which makes it even more difficult to identify the occupants,” said fire service spokesman Vassilis Tradyoannis.
Debris makes rescue efforts difficult
On Wednesday, rescuers began using cranes and other heavy machinery to move large sections of the trains, revealing bodies and mangled remains.
“There were several large pieces of steel,” said local resident Vassilis Polijos, who said he was one of the first on the scene. “The trains, both passenger and freight, were completely destroyed.”
Rescue worker Lazaros Sahitidis told ERT that teams were trying “very carefully” to extract steel, sheet metal and other materials twisted together by the crash. “It’s going to take a long time,” Tsarianidis said.
Greece’s fire service said 76 people had been hospitalized, including six in intensive care.
More than 200 people, unharmed or with minor injuries, were taken by bus to Thessaloniki, 130 kilometers (80 mi) to the north. In an effort to track down the missing, the police took their names as they arrived.
Eight train workers were among those killed in the crash, including two drivers of the freight train and two drivers of the passenger train, Greek Railway Workers’ Union President Yannis Nitsos said.
Greece goes from carnival to mourning
Many of the 350 people aboard the passenger train were students returning from Greece’s raucous carnival., officials said. The festival, which precedes Lent, was celebrated this year for the first time since the pandemic began in 2020.
The government declared three days of national mourning from Wednesday, while flags flew at half-mast outside all European Commission buildings in Brussels.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who visited the crash site, said the government should help rescue the injured and identify the dead.
“I can guarantee one thing: we will find the reasons for this tragedy and do everything we can to prevent something like this from happening again,” Mitsotakis said.
Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, who was on an official visit to Moldova, visited the scene, laying flowers near the ruins.
In a message sent on his behalf by the Vatican Secretary of State to the President of the Greek Bishops’ Conference, Pope Francis expressed his condolences to the families of the deceased.
The Pope “sends the assurance of his prayers to all those affected by this tragedy,” the message said.
Baphitis is reported from Athens, Greece. Derek Katopoulos in Athens and Patrick Quinn and David Rising in Bangkok contributed to this story.