Emergency crews cut trough the mangled metal paneling of a passenger train on Thursday, progressing “centimeter by centimeter” in their efforts to pull more bodies from the burned wreckage of a head-on collision in northern Greece that left at least 43 people dead. Rail workers went on strike to protest years of underfunding they say has left the country’s rail system in a dangerous state.
The passenger train and a freight train slammed into each other late Tuesday, crumpling carriages into twisted steel knots and forcing people to smash windows to escape. It was the country’s deadliest crash ever, and more than 50 people remained hospitalized, most in the central Greek city of Larissa, six of them in intensive care.
Fire Service spokesman Yiannis Artopios said the grim recovery effort was proceeding “centimeter by centimeter.”
“We can see that there are more (bodies) people there. Unfortunately they are in a very bad condition because of the collision,” Artopios told state television.
Railway workers’ associations 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 Greek 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.
The cause of the crash is still not clear, but a stationmaster arrested following the rail disaster is due to appear in court Thursday as a judicial inquiry tries to establish why the two trains were traveling in opposite directions on the same track.
Transport Minister Kostas Karamanlis resigned following the crash, his replacement tasked with setting up an independent inquiry looking into the causes of the accident.
“Responsibility will be assigned,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a televised address late Wednesday after visiting the scene of the collision.
“We will work so that the words ‘never again’ … will not remain an empty pledge. That I promise you.”
Supporters of the strike plan to protest in central Athens later Thursday.
More than 300 people were on board the passenger train, many of them were students returning from a holiday weekend and annual Carnival celebrations around Greece.
Andreas Alikaniotis, a 20-year-old survivor of the crash, described how he and fellow students, escaped from a jack-knifed train car as fire approached, smashing windows and throwing luggage onto the ground outside to use as a makeshift landing pad.
“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. And light had came from the approaching fire and the sparks that were flying. The smoke was suffocating inside the rail car but also outside,” Alikaniotis said.
“I managed to remain calm and I was one of the few around who had not been seriously injured,” he said. “Me and my friends helped people get out.”