Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said on Wednesday that “tragic human error” may have been responsible for the train collision that killed at least 38 people in the country’s worst rail tragedy.
A passenger train and a freight train collided late Tuesday near the central city of Larissa, crushing two carriages and catching fire in a third, on a route that has been dogged by safety warnings for years.
return: VIDEO: 32 dead, 85 injured as two trains collide in Greece; rescue effort
The fire service had earlier raised the death toll to 38, adding that 57 people remained in hospital, including six in intensive care, and several others were missing.
“Unfortunately, everything points to this drama as a tragedy largely due to human error,” Mitsotakis, who is seeking re-election this year, said in a televised address.
He said it was a “horrific train accident with no precedent” in Greece and that a “full” investigation would be conducted.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” said one rescuer who emerged from the wreckage. “It was tragic. Five hours later we found the body.”
The accident left a mess of metal and broken glass in the field.
In some cases passengers were identified by body parts, volunteer firefighter Vassilis Iliopoulos told Skai TV, warning that the death toll would rise.
Police said 17 biological samples had been taken from the remains and 23 relatives seeking a match.
“It’s a horror train,” Pavlos Aslanidis, whose son disappeared along with a friend, told reporters.
Hours after the crash, Greece’s transport minister handed in his resignation.
“When something so tragic happens, we cannot continue as if nothing happened,” Costas Karamanlis said in a public statement.
Police in the capital Athens fired tear gas at protesters who threw stones at the offices of railway operator Hellenic Train Wednesday night.
Years of security concerns
The passenger train carrying more than 350 people has been heading from Athens to the northern city of Thessaloniki.
Hours after the crash, Larissa’s 59-year-old station manager was arrested and charged with manslaughter.
Government spokesman Yiannis Economou said the two trains traveled “several kilometers” on the same track.
But the train union said the station master was likely to be the scapegoat because safety flaws on the Athens-Thessaloniki line had been known for years.
In an open letter in February, train staff said the track safety system was incomplete and poorly maintained.
A safety chief resigned last year, warning that infrastructure upgrades pending since 2016 had not been completed and that it was unsafe for trains to travel at speeds of up to 200 kilometers (124 mph).
“The accident could have been avoided if the safety systems were working properly,” Kostas Genidouias, president of the train drivers’ union, told AFP at the scene.
Health Minister Thanos Plevris said most of the passengers were “young people” and that the train was carrying many students returning to Thessaloniki after a long holiday weekend.
“It was a nightmare … I was still shaking,” passenger Angelos, 22, told AFP.
“Luckily we were in the penultimate car and we got out alive. The first car was on fire and it was a total panic.
“The collision was like a gigantic earthquake.”
“I was covered in blood from other injured people nearby,” a passenger named Lazos told Proto Thema newspaper.
About 150 firefighters and 40 ambulances were mobilized to respond, according to Greece’s emergency services.
Iliopoulos said crews were still working to lift a battered wagon lying on its side so they could search inside.
European Council President Charles Michel tweeted: “My thoughts are with the Greek people this morning.”
“Shocked by the news and images of the two trains colliding,” he added.
Neighboring Albania, Italy, Serbia and Turkey all expressed condolences, as did China, the United States, France, Russia, Ukraine, Germany and the Vatican.
Nicosia said two Cypriots were among those missing.
“The window exploded”
On local media site Onlarissa, a young woman said the train “stopped for a few minutes while we heard the deafening noise”.
Another passenger told Skai TV, “Suddenly the window exploded. People were screaming.”
“Fortunately, we were able to open the doors fairly quickly and escape. Among the other vans, they didn’t manage to escape and one van was even set on fire,” he added.
Authorities declared three days of national mourning.