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HomeWorldSorrow gives way to anger in Greece’s worst ever train crash

Sorrow gives way to anger in Greece’s worst ever train crash


Larisa, Greece – Relatives of those killed in Greece’s worst-ever train crash stood silently outside the amphitheater of Larissa General Hospital, normally used for medical seminars.

As they listened to the deputy health minister tell them how to provide DNA samples that would be used to match DNA from body parts recovered at the scene of the accident, they did not speak and barely registered facial expressions. They walked silently in small groups as their names were called.

Most were couples in their 40s and 50s — perhaps the parents of the many reported missing children.

A woman held her head in her hands and stared blankly ahead.

That so many of the 57 confirmed dead and 56 missing in the February 28 disaster were young has goaded Greeks.

Some of the victims had returned to their university after a long weekend of observing Greek Orthodox Lent.

Twin sisters Thomi and Chrysa Plakia, 20, and their first cousin, 19-year-old Anastasia Plakia, were returning to university in Thessaloniki when their train, the InterCity 62, was traveling at an estimated combined speed of 280km/h. All three women were killed.

Their hometown of Kastraki was steeped in mourning, said restaurateur Eleftheria Polyzou.

“We pass each other on the street. Our eyes meet and no one knows what to say,” she said.

Sadness has turned to anger in this society, where nuclear family ties are nothing short of sacred.

The Larissa station master has confessed to sending train 62 north on the south track, but many Greeks do not believe he was the sole culprit.

“It’s not just the station master, it’s not just his human fault for not changing tracks, it’s everything that happened 20 years before,” says Andreas Samartzis, a Larissa restauranteur.

“When you are a father, you feel everything twice as intensely as others. I don’t know what I would have done if my kids had been involved.”

Rescue crews operated at the scene of a crash that has sent Greece into a state of mourning and anger (Alexandros Avramidis/Reuters)

For days, people have seen television images of cranes lifting wreckage off the rails.

The engine of the passenger train and the first two cars were so completely destroyed that they were hoisted away in mangled strips of steel.

Victims in these cars might not even be able to afford DNA samples for authorities to work with, because their remains burned in a fire so powerful it melted the metal.

Only the third car, which was half way down the track, was recognizable as rolling stock.

The station master, Vasilis Samaras, may be charged with negligent homicide and the government has set up a three-member Commission of Inquiry to investigate the causes of the accident.

But some believe that Samaras is being used as a handy scapegoat.

“They focused on one tree and moved the forest,” said an Athens taxi driver, Kyriakos Dellis, referring to officials who left Greece’s rail system without automated safety systems.

“What we need is not an investigation, but a people’s court, here on Syntagma Square. We have good prosecutors and good lawyers.”

Another official of the Hellenic Railways Organization has been suspended. Dimitris Nikolaou, the regional security inspector, is under investigation for allegedly making Samaras work that night.

But the chain of responsibility continues, says Panayotis Paraskevopoulos, a recently retired union leader of the Hellenic Railways Organization.

Three stationmasters were said to be present in Larissa when train 62 departed, he told Al Jazeera.

“When (Samaras) showed up at 10pm to start his shift, the other two left. They would stay until 11 p.m.,” he said.

Interactive Greece

Train 62 departed on the north track at 11:05 pm, but switched to the south track about 100 yards outside the station. That’s because Samaras had previously switched a southbound train across the northbound tracks to the Larissa train sheds and had forgotten to put the switches back on, according to leaked versions of his confession to the Larissa police.

“The station master thought he had put (the points) back in the right position. He didn’t realize what had happened when the train left, even when the accident happened,” said Paraskevopoulos.

Samaras would not have been able to see the erroneous trajectory of train 62 on his switchboard for “seconds” after it left the station, Paraskevopoulos said. He could have easily missed it if he hadn’t been paying attention. No one else in Greece had any idea what train 62 was doing.

The two drivers and four other employees on board train 62 should also have recognized the error, according to Paraskevopoulos.

“They saw that the train had switched to the southern track. They were obliged to call the station master and ask why they were being diverted in the oncoming direction.”

Paraskevopoulos says he doesn’t understand why they didn’t.

Apart from the human errors, there was a lack of automated telemetry, signaling and braking systems that operated for a short time on the Greek rail network until 2012. brakes that surpassed manual operation.

But “saboteurs cut the power lines, and with that, they cut the wires for automated controls, and most of those controls broke all over the country,” Paraskevopoulos said.

Larissa went offline in 2013 and had since reverted to the voice commands between the station master and the train driver used on February 28.

During the global financial crisis after 2008, the Greek economy shrank by a quarter. Successive governments cut spending and failed to revive the railway’s automated safety systems.

The absence of those systems had knock-on effects on safety culture, said Yiorgos Dinopoulos, a developer who has built rail lines for the government.

“These systems are poorly maintained in the Greek rail system,” Dinopoulos told Al Jazeera. “They often malfunction and flash red when they should be flashing green, so stationmasters and machinists have learned to ignore them and drive through the red.”

Three weeks ago, the railway workers’ union filed a public complaint, demanding investment in staff and automated signaling equipment, saying a major accident was only a matter of time. And they were not the first. Last year, the chief safety officer of the Hellenic Railways Organization resigned due to a lack of safety procedures.

Greece faces elections between April and July and some desperate options are being mooted.

Alter Ego Media, owned by a key ally of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has launched a public campaign to suspend all passenger train services for three months.

The runway where the accident occurred must be operational on March 10.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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