Protesters hold balloons during a demonstration, after a crash in which two trains collided near the Greek city of Larissa, in Athens, Greece, March 3, 2023. The ballon reads "57 death tickets". Image Credit: REUTERS

ATHENS: Thousands of Greeks protested on Friday to demand justice for at least 57 people killed in the country’s worst rail disaster, which authorities have conceded followed failures in state management of the network.

Some families were still desperate to locate loved ones who were on the train and a few demonstrations turned violent as public anger increased over the role that government mismanagement played in the tragedy.

Audio files were among the items seized during a police raid on the Larissa train station in central Greece, where Tuesday’s crash happened, a judicial source told AFP.

The passenger train ran for several kilometres on the same track as an incoming freight train before the crash, reportedly after the station master in Larissa failed to reroute one of the trains.

It was carrying many students returning from a holiday weekend.

The disaster has sparked widespread criticism of government failures in the rail network, and protesters held another series of demonstrations on Friday in the capital Athens and several major cities across Greece.

In Thessaloniki - Greece’s second largest city - police said a protest of about 2,000 demonstrators turned violent on Thursday, with protesters throwing stones and petrol bombs.

Parents’ frantic search

Survivors described scenes of horror and chaos when the crash occurred, with many dodging smashed glass and debris as the train keeled over.

Some relatives were still desperately awaiting news of missing loved ones with fury and despair.

“No one can tell me anything - if my child is injured or in intensive care or anything,” one woman told AFP, desperately seeking news of her 23-year-old daughter Kalliopi.

greece co-1677858881492
Pallbearers carry the coffin of a 34-year old woman, a passenger of a train that collided with another train near the city of Larissa, during her funeral procession in Katerini, Greece, March 3, 2023. Image Credit: Reuters

Her 49-year-old husband Lazaros said he’d only discovered there had been a crash by watching the late evening TV news.

“I woke my wife up and asked her if our daughter was on that train. That was when the nightmare began,” he said.

Both have given DNA samples and are now waiting to find out if their daughter is alive.

Roubini Leontari, the chief coroner at Larissa’s general hospital, told broadcaster ERT on Thursday that more than 10 people were still unaccounted for, including two Cyprus nationals.

‘Lack of respect’

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who is seeking re-election this spring, has blamed the disaster on “tragic human error”.

But protests pointing the finger at government mismanagement continued on Friday.

Angry demonstrators have been demonstrating in Athens since Wednesday. By Friday, thousands of students were staging sit-ins and demonstrating in the capital and other cities.

More than 5,000 people gathered outside the Athens headquarters of operators Hellenic Train - which took over network operations in 2017 - protesting decades of failure to improve rail network safety, despite close calls in past years.

“Murderers!” the crowd cried out as protesters daubed the word on the building’s glass facade in red.

“We are boiling with rage. It’s unacceptable for such a tragic event to happen in the year 2023,” said protester Angelos Thomopoulos.

“We are taking to the streets today... to demand that those responsible for this tragedy are held accountable and that nothing is covered up,” he told AFP.

Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Greek parliament observed a minute’s silence in tribute to the victims of the disaster.

Greece’s train services were paralysed on Thursday by striking workers arguing that successive administrations’ mismanagement of the network had contributed to the fatal collision.

The rail union federation denounced a “lack of respect towards Greece’s rail network by successive governments over the years, which led to this tragic result”.

They have urged railway workers to strike for a second consecutive day.

‘Complete evaluation’

Rail unions say security problems on the Athens-Thessaloniki railway line had been known about for years.

The 59-year-old station master at Larissa has been charged with negligent homicide, but his lawyer has argued that other factors were at play.

“My client has assumed his share of responsibility,” lawyer Stefanos Pantzartzidis said on Thursday. “But we must not focus on a tree when there is a forest behind it.”

ERT reported that the station master had only been appointed to the post 40 days earlier - and after just three months’ training.

For decades, Greece’s 2,552-kilometre (1,585-mile) rail network has been plagued by mismanagement, poor maintenance and obsolete equipment.

After the country’s transport minister resigned on Wednesday in the wake of the crash, his replacement, Giorgos Gerapetritis, vowed a “complete evaluation of the political system and the state”.

Safety systems on the line are still not fully automated, five years after the state-owned Greek rail operator Trainose was privatised and sold to Italy’s Ferrovie Dello Stato Italiane and became Hellenic Train.