Greece’s prime minister on Sunday asked for forgiveness from the families of the 57 dead in the nation’s worst rail disaster as thousands of furious protesters rallied in Athens and clashed with police.
“As prime minister, I owe it to everyone, but especially to the victims’ relatives, (to ask for) forgiveness,” Kyriakos Mitsotakis wrote in a message addressed to the nation ahead of a memorial service in Athens.
“For the Greece of 2023, two trains heading in different directions cannot run on the same line and no one notice,” Mitsotakis said in the message posted on his Facebook page.
The crash between passenger and freight trains near the city of Larissa on Tuesday has sparked widespread outrage across Greece.
Protest rallies in Athens and Thessaloniki
On Sunday, railway unions organised a protest rally in central Athens attended by about 12,000 people, according to authorities.
Five people were arrested and seven police officers were injured when a group of more than 200 masked, black-clad individuals started throwing pieces of marble, rocks, bottles and firebombs at officers, according to the Athens police department. Some demonstrators set fire to rubbish bins and threw Molotov cocktails. Others held signs reading “Down with killer governments.”
Police at the scene responded with “limited use of the necessary, appropriate means” — that is, tear gas and stun grenades – and chased suspects along a central avenue in the city.
In Thessaloniki, about 3,000 people attended two protest rallies. The larger one, organised by left-wing activists, marched to a government building. No incidents were reported at that event.
In the other, staged by Communist Party members at the White Tower, the city’s signature monument, there was a brief scuffle with police when the protesters tried to place a banner on the monument.
“The Communist Party organised a symbolic protest today in front of the White Tower to denounce the crime in Tempe, because it is a premeditated crime, a crime committed by the company and the bourgeois state that supports these companies,” said Giannis Delis, a communist lawmaker.
At the small station of Rapsani, near the accident site, residents left red and white carnations on Sunday and lit candles along the track.
Greek TV stations showed harrowing images of weeping parents clamouring for information of children who had been aboard the train and berating authorities for what had happened.
Relatives and loved ones of those killed gathered Sunday for a memorial outside Larissa station, central Greece, near the site of the accident.
Station master detained pending trial
The station master at Larissa railway station was detained pending trial on Sunday, his lawyer said, on charges related to the train crash.
The 59-year-old, who cannot be named under Greek law, was arrested on March 1, hours after the crash. Felony charges were filed the next day, for disrupting transport and putting lives at risk.
The station master appeared before a magistrate on Sunday to respond to the charges.
“It was expected due to the significance of the case, the burden, the responsibility,” his lawyer Stefanos Pantzartzidis told reporters, adding that his client was “devastated” and had told the magistrate “the truth without fear”.
On Thursday, he said that his client had assumed responsibility “proportionate to him”, but other factors were also at play, without elaborating.
Greek railway unions have long complained of slipping safety standards, which place both passengers and workers at risk.
Grief and anger
Hellenic Train, the rail company that has become the focus of some of the anger expressed in the wake of the crash, late Saturday defended its actions.
Hundreds of people had demonstrated during the week outside their Athens headquarters, and one legal source has said that investigators are looking at the possibility of bringing charges against senior members of the company.
Over the last few days, rail union officials have insisted they warned the company about the safety issues on the line. Hard questions are also being asked of the government over its failure to pursue rail safety reforms.
The demonstrations and vigils across Greece have expressed a combination of grief and anger at the collision between a passenger train and a freight train.
Many of the victims were students who were returning from a weekend break.
“What happened was not an accident, it was a crime,” said one protester, Sophia Hatzopoulou, 23, a philosophy student in Thessaloniki.
“We can’t watch all this happen and remain indifferent.”
At least nine young people studying at Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University were among those killed on the passenger train.
‘New elements’ in case
In terms of ascribing overall responsibility, Mitsotakis insisted: “We cannot, do not wish to and must not hide behind human error.”
Details have emerged in Greek media of the station master’s relative inexperience in the post and the fact that he was left unsupervised during a busy holiday weekend.
“These are particularly difficult days for the country and for our company,” the operator said in a statement late Saturday, pointing out that it had lost nine of its own employees in the third worst rail crash by fatalities in Europe in more than 30 years.
Its staff were quick to reach the scene of the disaster and had been working closely with rescue teams and the authorities ever since, the company added.
Kostas Genidounias, the head of the train drivers’ union OSE, has said they had already warned the authorities about safety failings on the line where the crash happened.
Union leaders at Hellenic Train sounded the alarm just three weeks ago.
“We are not going to wait for the accident to happen to see those responsible shed crocodile tears,” they said at the time.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and Reuters)