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Letter from Athens: The Christmas Spirits of Tempi Train Crash Remind What Matters

With the COVID-19 pandemic all but forgotten while still making people ill enough to be hospitalized, put on ventilators, or in the ground, so too is the tragedy of the February head-on train crash in Tempi that killed 57 people, many students.

None of that matters to former transport minister Kostas Karamanlis, who quickly quit and later explained he didn’t have enough time in 3 ½ years in office to implement safety measures that would have prevented the crash.

He doesn’t have blood on his hands – he has ashes, all the more tragic since he’s sullying even those incinerated remains, many of the victims either obliterated into oblivion from the force of the crash or cremated inside.

The Christmas trees are going up in municipalities and homes and the joyous shopping sprees are underway in Greece for those who can afford it, and the gift list should include olive oil because it’s more expensive than some jewelry.

There’s laughter in the taverns again, masking a distant memory, and the pealing squeals of children in schoolyards, many too young to understand what happened to those university students on the train whose future was taken away.

Not too many years ago they were in elementary schoolyards playing with their friends, kicking soccer balls, doing cartwheels, coming of age and reason and even talking about what they would be when they grow up.

Those on the train who didn’t make it found their lives ended at a young age, sitting there talking as they headed from Athens to Thessaloniki to go back to university studies after the end of Greece’s first post-COVID carnival period.

Tomorrow is guaranteed to no one, of course, and little did they know as their passenger train from Athens hurtled toward an oncoming freight train theirs would never arrive and before too long no politician would speak their names.

You can’t really call it an accident because it was preventable and no one has yet been called to account, a poorly-trained stationmaster on duty only a few days and without electronic equipment the culprit, along with some railway flunkies.

Karamanlis’ punishment for neglect while a European prosecutor investigates where money went that was supposed to fix a railway system that isn’t good enough to be a Lionel Christmas toy was to be elected to Parliament.

So let’s remember the real victims this Christmas, if not for long because the dead of 2007 summer fires – including a mother, her three children and grandmother – have already faded from memory too.

No Christmas story or movie is as heartbreaking as what the father of 20-year-old twin women who were killed on the train with their cousin, has had to endure – a grief and pain that can’t be measured and never, ever leaves the mind or soul.

On his recent name day, Nikos Plakias told the news site I.eidiseis the hurt is like a harpoon in his heart and he couldn’t commemorate it or Christmas.

“How can I celebrate when … I will not hear their footsteps on the stairs of my house to surprise me with their gifts. I won’t hear: ‘My daddy, my daddy, my uncle.’ I won’t fight over who gets to put the star on the tree, no… no… no… no… endlessly,” he added.

He asked friends to put “three ornaments on your tree for my girls, two of the same for the twins and a different one for Anastasia, because that’s how much they loved seeing lights, trees, and the festive spirit of Christmas.”

“St. Nicholas today. Many of you are thinking about whether or not to wish me well. What wishes can you say to a father who won’t have his children at the holidays, insipid and meaningless, just to help me and to know that you care about me,” he said.

There was a photo of him with the three young women at a snowy location, one wearing a New York Yankees cap, the four faces flushed with the chill air, the eyes bright as the twinkle of a snowflake, thinking of many more days and years ahead of them – all taken away by negligence that goes unpunished.

The train crash brought predictable, brief shock across the country and was so horrific that even soccer hooligans may have thought about putting hold on plans to attack rivals and throw flares in stadiums, but it didn’t break the indecency of politicians shedding crocodile tears, none of whom lost anyone on the trains.

Instead, all will make a mockery of what Christmas should be, that already having been done by society in a commercialism overdose that makes Dec. 25 just another Amazon Prime Day because it has no meaning and no reason to believe in anything anymore.

So give a gift of three ornaments in memory of the young women and the others who are gone forever, and listen to what Plakias said: “Do  it, and when I am very strong I will put the star on my house tree for all of you. Have a happy holiday and before you go to bed, give your kids a pat on the back as if it’s your last one. Because, I didn’t get to do that either” – the words that really matter.

This is the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Future speaking.

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