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News / Nation & World

Greek PM Mitsotakis apologizes for deadly train disaster

By Associated Press
Published: March 5, 2023, 1:33pm

ATHENS, Greece — Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis apologized Sunday for any responsibility Greece’s government may bear for the deadliest train crash in the country’s history, while a stationmaster facing charges gave his account of the events leading up to the tragedy.

At least 57 people were killed when a passenger train and a freight train collided late Tuesday north of Athens. The stationmaster is accused of mistakenly guiding the two trains traveling in opposite directions onto the same track, precipitating the head-on collision.

In an initial statement Wednesday, Mitsotakis said the crash resulted from a “tragic human error.” Opposition parties pounced on the remark, accusing the prime minister of trying to cover up the state’s role and making the inexperienced stationmaster in the city of Larissa a scapegoat.

“I owe everyone, and especially the victims’ relatives, a big apology, both personal and on behalf of all who governed the country for many years,” Mitsotakis wrote on Facebook. “In 2023, it is inconceivable that two trains move in different directions on the same track and no one notices. We cannot, we do not want to, and we must not hide behind the human error.”

Greek media have reported that the automated signaling system in the area of the crash was not functioning, leading to the stationmaster’s mistake.

The prime minister promised a swift investigation of the collision and said the new Greek transportation minister would release a safety improvement plan. Once a new parliament is in place, a commission also will be named to investigate decades of mismanagement of the country’s railway system, Mitsotakis said.

He had been expected to announce an election date on Friday but postponed the announcement in the wake of the train disaster.

Greece’s railways long suffered from chronic mismanagement, including lavish spending on projects that were eventually abandoned or significantly delayed, Greek media have reported in several exposes. With state railway company Hellenic Railways billions of euros in debt, maintenance work was put off, according to the news reports.

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A retired railway union leader, Panayotis Paraskevopoulos, told Greek newspaper Kathimerini that the signaling system in the area monitored by the Larissa stationmaster malfunctioned six years ago and was never repaired.

The stationmaster testified Sunday before a prosecutor and an examining magistrate in Larissa to answer charges that include several counts of negligent homicide and bodily harm, as well as disruption of transport.

Police and prosecutors have not identified him in line with Greek law. However, Hellenic Railways, also known as OSE, revealed the stationmaster’s name Saturday, in an announcement suspending the company inspector who appointed him. The stationmaster also has been suspended.

Greek media have reported that the stationmaster, a former porter with the railway company, was transferred to a Ministry of Education desk job in 2011, when Greece’s creditors demanded reductions in the number of public employees. The 59-year-old was transferred back to the railway company in mid-2022 and started a 5-month course to train as a stationmaster.

Upon completing the course, he was assigned to Larissa on Jan. 23, according to his own Facebook post. However, he spent the next month month rotating among other stations before returning to Larissa in late February, days before the Feb. 28 collision, Greek media reported.

On Sunday, railway unions organized 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.

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, organized 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 organized 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,” Giannis Delis, a communist lawmaker, told The Associated Press.