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Roar of the Crowd: Angry Greeks in Streets Protest Train Tragedy

ATHENS – Around 40,000 people gathered at Athens’ main Syntagma Square, outside Parliament, to express their anger over a train collision that killed 57 people and was blamed on years of safety failures and negligence. Although largely peaceful, this demonstration followed others that saw clashes between protesters and riot police, who responded aggressively by hitting people and firing tear gas into the crowds.

The crash between a passenger train carrying 350 people coming out of a tunnel in Tempi, en route from Athens to Thessaloniki, hitting an oncoming cargo train that resulted in a fireball explosion, came after a warning from the rail workers union it was imminent because safety systems weren’t working.

Demonstrators gathering in front of the Parliament at Syntagma square during a protest for victims of a rail disaster, in central Athens, on Wednesday, March 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
A firefighter sprays water on fire of a vehicle after clashes between demonstrators and riots police during a protest for victims of a rail disaster, in central Athens, on Wednesday, March 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
Protestors take part in a protest for victims of a rail disaster, in central Athens, on Wednesday, March 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

The crash occurred when a passenger train carrying 350 people hit an oncoming cargo train, resulting in a fireball explosion. The incident followed a warning from the rail workers’ union that the accident was imminent because safety systems weren’t working. The protests occurred during a national strike of public sector unions and workers who claimed that years of neglect, worsened by the 2010-2018 economic austerity crisis that brought budget cuts, led to the tragedy. There were also protests elsewhere in the country, with another 20,000 people demonstrating as the New Democracy government, recoiling in the face of anger with elections coming by summer, tried to regroup.

During the protests in Athens, there were shouts of “Murderers!” and “We are all in the same carriage,” referring to the victims, most of whom were students on their way to Greece’s second-largest city after attending annual carnival celebrations held for the first time in three years due to the COVID pandemic. Violence briefly broke out when a group of protesters clashed with riot police, who fired tear gas at the crowd. Protesters hurled petrol bombs in front of parliament and set a van and garbage bins on fire.

A demonstrators hold placards as reads in Greek “Greece eat their children”, center, “The state murder”, left, and at the right, “It was a bad time”, during a protest for victims of a rail disaster, in central Athens, on Wednesday, March 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

 

In Thessaloniki, protesters threw stones at a government building, and some in Athens held signs that read, “Call Me When You Arrive,” a symbol of parental worry and a request for their children to let them know when they arrive at their destination.

19-year-old Nikomathi Vathi told the news agency, “You feel angry because the government did nothing for all of those kids. The public transport is a mess,” and another student, Vaggelis Somarakis, said, “We’re going to be here until things change.”

PROMISED CHANGES NEVER COME

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis initially attributed the tragedy to “human error” after a stationmaster admitted to making a mistake by having two trains on the same track. However, Mitsotakis backtracked in the face of growing fury, apologized to the families, and announced an investigation into why safety systems, subsidized by the European Union, weren’t fully implemented.

New Transport Minister George Gerapetritis, who was appointed after his predecessor Kostas Karamanlis quickly quit following the accident, told reporters that he understood the anger in the streets. “No train will set off again if we have not secured safety at the maximum possible level,” he said after announcing a suspension of the service while it reviews safety. Rail workers have been staging rolling strikes, stopping service between the country’s two largest cities just as the spring tourist season was about to begin, and elections that were due to be held as soon as April have been pushed back.

Demonstrators observe a minute of silence during a protest for victims of a rail disaster, in central Athens, on Wednesday, March 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Rail workers said their warnings were ignored, as were complaints about understaffing, with only one-third of the needed stationmasters in place and working at times with walkie-talkies and manual switching. The head of the train drivers’ union, Kostas Genidounias, said, “We drivers have filed complaints about these things, we have gone on strike about it, we have made warnings, we have protested. They told us we were lying, we were slanderous, we had other interests. In the end, it showed that the workers were right.” The government admitted as much and said the railways would be safe from now on.

Riot police try to avoid the flames of a molotov cocktail thrown by protesters during a protest for victims of a rail disaster, outside of the Parliament in central Athens, on Wednesday, March 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
Demonstrators hold a banner reads in Greek “Murderers” during a protest for victims of a rail disaster, in central Athens, on Wednesday, March 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

According to a report, a teachers’ union stated, “It’s not the time to fall silent,” amidst the ongoing strike and protests over the fatal train collision in Greece. Transport workers and the largest public sector union ADEDY have also joined the 24-hour strike, leading to disruptions in metro, tram, and bus services, while ships remained docked at ports due to seamen’s participation in the action.

Transport Minister Gerapetritis promised to invest in infrastructure and hire staff, while ensuring accountability for those responsible. Despite the railway operator being sold to Italy’s Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane in 2017, the new company has not yet commented on the tragic incident.

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