Greek PM seeks forgiveness amid angry protests over rail tragedy

Published March 5, 2023
Black baloons are released into the sky in Athens on March 5, 2023, during a demonstration following the deadly train accident on February 28. — AFP
Black baloons are released into the sky in Athens on March 5, 2023, during a demonstration following the deadly train accident on February 28. — AFP

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.

Thousands of angry demonstrators — police estimated the number at 12,000 people — gathered by the large esplanade in front of the parliament to demand accountability for Tuesday’s head-on collision near the central city of Larissa that has sparked widespread outrage.

AFP journalists saw violent clashes erupt between police and protesters. Police said seven police were hurt while five arrests were made.

Petrol bombs and tear gas

Some demonstrators set fire to rubbish bins and threw Molotov cocktails. Others held signs reading “Down with killer governments.” Police responded by firing tear gas and stun grenades to clear the square.

At the small station of Rapsani, near to the accident site, local people left red and white carnations and lit candles along the track.

Greek television showed harrowing images of weeping parents clamouring for information of children who had been aboard the train and berating authorities for what had happened.

Michalis Hasiotis, head of the chartered accountants’ union, told AFP they felt “an immense anger”, blaming “the thirst for profit, the lack of measures taken for the passengers’ protection” for the disaster.

Relatives and loved ones of those killed gathered Sunday for a memorial outside Larissa station, central Greece, near the site of the accident.

The station master, named as Vassilis Samaras who has admitted responsibility for the accident, went before a judge on Sunday, his hearing postponed from the previous day.

The 59-year-old is charged with negligent homicide and faces life in jail if convicted.

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 on 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.

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