In Greece’s bloodiest rail accident in recent memory, two trains collided head-on on Tuesday night, sending entire carriages flying off the tracks and resulting in at least 36 fatalities and dozens of injuries.
The death toll was expected to rise further, a fire brigade official said. Sixty-six of those injured were hospitalised, six of whom in intensive care, the official said.
The crash occurred as the passenger train emerged from a tunnel. Derailed carriages, badly damaged with broken windows and thick plumes of smoke, could be seen on the site.
One passenger carriage stood on its side at almost 90 degrees from the rest of the wrecked train, with other derailed carriages tilting precariously.
“There was panic … the fire was immediate, as we were turning over we were being burned, fire was right and left,” said Stergios Minenis, a 28-year-old passenger who jumped to safety from the wreckage.
A passenger who escaped from the fifth carriage told Skai TV: “Windows were being smashed and people were screaming … One of the windows caved in from the impact of iron from the other train.”
The passenger train was carrying 342 travellers and 10 crew, while two crew were on the cargo train, according to Hellenic Train data.
Many were evacuated to Thessaloniki, where one woman ran to embrace her daughter as she disembarked from a bus with other survivors.
“Mum don’t, I’m hurt,” the daughter said. Another woman, who was waiting there, said her child was not picking up the phone.
The head of emergency unit in Larissa hospital Apostolos Komnos said most of the dead were young people, in their 20s.
Many of the passengers would have been returning home after a long holiday weekend marking the beginning of Greek Orthodox lent. Thessaloniki has a large student population.
The government declared three days of national mourning, from Wednesday to Friday, with flags flying at half-mast in a tribute to the victims of the crash.
“We still don’t know the exact number of victims, we will investigate the reasons for (the crash) in full transparency,” Infrastructure and Transport minister Kostas Karamanlis, in tears, told reporters.
One of the questions investigators need to answer is why the two trains were, according to Thessaly regional governor Konstantinos Agorastos, running on the same track when they crashed.
Police temporarily detained the station master in Larissa and at least three witnesses have been questioned, including a representative for Hellenic Train, a police official said.
Greece’s ageing railway system is in need of modernising, with many trains travelling on single tracks and signalling and automatic control systems still to be installed in many areas.
President Katerina Sakellaropoulou cut short a visit to Moldova to return to Greece.
“Even at this moment, a life-saving operation is going on to help those who are on this death train,” she told a news conference in the Molovan capital Chisinau.
In the morning, cranes were lifting derailed carriages, as rescuer scoured through the wreckage. ERT state TV showed one crew carrying what was thought to be a victim, covered in a white sheet, to an ambulance.
Fire brigade spokesperson Vassilis Varthakogiannis said the evacuation of passengers took place in very “difficult conditions given the severity of the collision of the two trains.”
“We are living through a tragedy. We are pulling out people alive, injured…there are dead,” he said.