Demonstrators release lanterns during a protest in front of the parliament, in Athens, Saturday, March 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)
ATHENS – A little less than a week after 342 people boarded a passenger train in Athens headed to Thessaloniki, which crashed head-on into an oncoming cargo train on the same track, the funerals of remain of victims has begun, and the anger.
The force of the crash twisted metal like taffy, tearing people into parts and a fire that broke out reaching 2300 degrees – twice that of a crematorium – leaving recovery crews little to take out, closed coffins of remains and soot.
The British newspaper The Guardian’s Helena Smith wrote of the grim aftermath and the grieving going on and fury rising over neglect of the railway system, highlighted by the funerals starting, including with a toddler in a white coffin.
They’re being identified by DNA taken from relatives because there’s no way to recognize who they are otherwise because they’re not bodies, the processions starting after a three-day official mourning period and memorial services coming later in the run up to elections.
An investigation to allegedly find out what happened – the government said it was “human error” and put the blame largely on a station master who had the trains on the same track – started off badly when one of its three members quit because he had served as the head of the system previously.
Many of the at least 57 dead, with dozens missing, were students returning to Thessaloniki from carnival celebrations in Athens that had been held for the first time in three years because of the Coronavirus pandemic.
The report also noted that of the 66 who were injured that six are on life support in hospitals while survivors said they were either ejected through windows or crawled through flames and smoke to jump from derailed cars.
“In the modern age of electrified locomotives and automated safety systems, the overarching question is ‘why’? It is one that has been increasingly levelled at the government as protesters have taken to the streets,” said the story, Greece having the worst train safety record in the European Union.
“We are, across society, in the midst of a furious grief,” Fotini Tsalikoglou, one of the country’s foremost professors of psychology told the newspaper. “It’s a tragedy that has made people feel vulnerable and unprotected. There’s a pervasive sense that it could have been any one of us,” she said.
HOT RAGE, COLD ANGER
The horror has been compounded by the gruesome end the victims met, leaving friends and families without being able to say good-bye to even a body and the anger that it shouldn’t have happened.
“Rituals that have existed since Homer’s time, that have helped us make sense of death, become impossible when there is no, or little, trace of the dead, because it is as if a life didn’t exist,” she told the Observer. “Everyone has been able to identify with that.”
The railworkers union in February predicted a tragedy coming down the tracks because of a lack of safety systems, inoperative automation, inadequate signaling, overstretched staff and lack of proper training.
Greece’s system relies on workers generally communicating through walkie-talkies – no word whether there were cell phones in use either – and employing mostly a manual method in an age of electronics.
Safety experts said that if Greece had implemented safety systems that were delayed, and having received billions of euros in European Union aid for modernization with no word where the money went that automatic braking and other measures could have prevented the tragedy.
“The move came amid murmurings of corruption in the Transport Ministry, a department tasked with handling huge EU-funded projects,” the report said, the head of the agency quitting and saying he inherited a broken system.
Apparently trying to deflect criticism and responsibility with elections coming by July and rival parties ripping his government, Prime Minister Kyriakis Mitsotakis said the catastrophe was largely “human error,” seen as blaming a station master new to the job who admitted making a mistake.
The trains were heading right at each other for an estimated 12-17 with no warnings, no report why or if the walkie-talkies were used and another report the station master was warned by another nearby.
Greeks took to the streets in protest, not buying the Prime Minister’s putting the blame on human error and wanting answers that rarely come in scandal after scandal in the country.
“We’re all human and we all make mistakes,” Alexis Pappas, 25, attending a protest in Athens’ central Syntagma square told The Guardian, echoing what;s been reverberating around the country.
“We’re not machines but we have machines that should have been used. What’s happened is a big crime. Fellow Greeks were murdered. The government has to tell us why. Someone has to pay the price.”
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