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Letter from Athens: Rolling Blunder: Spinning Greece’s Mismanaged Railways

What comes to mind watching and listening to Greek officials try to explain why a deadly head-on train crash that killed 57 people – most of them students returning from Athens to Thessaloniki after the annual Carnival celebration – is that Ralph Kramden was the Minister of Silly Talks.

It’s because all the gobbledygook and jabberwocky about why someone else or some other government or fate was to blame all sounded like him going “Humina, humina,” when Alice confronted him about some ridiculousness.

Nothing is going to bring back those poor people who died, found incinerated or in pieces because of the violence of the crash that created a fire twice as hot as a crematorium, but at least this tragedy shouldn’t lead to others.

This being Greece, it will of course, because we’re less than five years from 103 people dying in wildfires northeast of Athens, the seaside village of Mati almost destroyed, a death toll caused by negligence.

That’s because then-premier and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras – he at least claimed “political responsibility” before letting other officials take the blame – didn’t have a disaster response plan other than one for public relations.

He had Mati and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis now has Tempi, the site of the crash that happened just as the passenger train carrying 350 people came out of a tunnel, hitting a cargo train.

If it had happened inside the tunnel, safety experts said the death toll would have been far higher – perhaps everyone – because of fire and fumes that would have filled it and made rescue impossible.

And the tragedy came a few days before Mitsotakis was to set the date for elections – most likely April 9, a week before Easter when many Greeks would be at their villages or islands where they vote.

He properly set aside any discussion of that, but it was said the political ramifications were kicked around amidst talk of how to deal with the aftermath of the tragedy that brought protests in the streets over the deaths and years of negligence that made riding the railways like playing Greek Roulette.

Mitsotakis made a nearly unforgivable faux pas at the scene, with shreds of people inside burning cars, when he said it was largely due to “human error,” throwing a stationmaster who admitted some blame under the train.

Five days later he apologized, but rival parties said it read like a script handed him by a public relations crisis management team, and even if he did write it, he should have come out in public, facing reporters, and not on Facebook.

This being the social media age and Greek leaders hiding under their desks and commanding by press release and tweet, the government quickly turned to pointing out previous governments failures over rail safety, all true.

The funerals will be a reminder of negligence and neglect by this government and all the others that failed to implement safety systems despite getting 270 million euros ($288 million) in European Union aid.

So instead of continuing to blunder and tweet and dance and play musical chairs to put a scapegoat in one of them, what was needed here is someone to Face the Music and answer tough questions.

They won’t, counting on time making people forget – who remembers the 84 dead in 2007 wildfires, including a mother, her four children and their grandmother in yet another Greek catastrophe blamed on the gods.

The rail workers union warned – only a few weeks earlier – that a tragedy was imminent because safety measures hadn’t been installed, and the head of a committee trying to implement them quit in 2022 over “unjustifiable delays.”

“We won’t wait for the accident which is about to happen to see everyone shed crocodile tears … safety should be on the front line,” wrote the union in a plea that was ignored by everyone, including then- Transport Minister Kostas Karamanlis who recently guaranteed the trains were safe. He quit over the tragedy.

Mitsotakis compounded the disaster with a three-member panel that broke apart when one of them had to quit in a conflict of interest because, while he was a previous head of the railway system he would investigate, he cut staff to the bone.

Sad blubbering is going on in a desperate attempt to deflect blame and in the same language that’s so common from every government after every tragedy – there should be a template for the next to fill in the blanks when it happens again.

“I, Prime Minister (fill in name here) am profoundly saddened by the loss of life in a tragedy that never should have happened …. (give reasons here why it’s not your fault) etc.”
In the 2007 fires it was then-premier Costas Karamanlis who said, “these are difficult times for all of us,” declaring a day of national mourning he said wouldn’t be forgotten – but was by the next daybreak.

In 2018, it was the gutless Tsipras who, talking to the Greek people to explain why he fiddled as Mati burned, said: “I call on you to also assume responsibility, no matter how hard.”
What’s hard is getting a coffin full of ashes or pieces, and if those accountable aren’t held responsible, they should be ridden out of town on a rail – but it wouldn’t be safe.

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