Wreckage cleared, days after deadly Greek rail disaster

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People obverse a minute of silence, during a protest outside the Greek parliament, in Athens, Greece, Sunday, March 5, 2023. Thousands protesters, take part in rallies around the country for fifth day, protesting the conditions that led the deaths of dozens of people late Tuesday, in Greece's worst recorded rail accident. (AP Photo/Aggelos Barai)

ATHENS – Recovery crews in northern Greece cleared the final sections of wreckage from a deadly train collision off the tracks on Monday, as protests and political fallout from the country’s worst ever rail disaster continued.

Heavy construction machinery was used to move remaining parts of shattered rail cars at Tempe, 375 kilometers (235 miles) north of Athens, where 57 people were killed in the Feb. 28 crash. Twelve people remain hospitalized with injuries, five of them in serious condition.

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The Greek government has requested assistance from other European governments to modernize safety procedures on the relatively limited rail network.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, responding to the request, announced that experts from the European Union Agency for Railways would visit Greece this week.

A 59-year-old station manager in central Greece has been charged with negligent homicide and was jailed late Sunday pending trial.

His lawyer, Stephanos Pantzartzidis, told reporters late Sunday that low staffing levels on the night of the accident would also be the subject of the criminal investigation.

“The man was constantly at his post. In a hellish timespan of about 20 minutes he was in charge of (rail) security for all of central Greece,” Pantzartzidis said.

National rail services remain halted by strikes while protests were set to continue in several towns in Greece Monday, mostly led by student groups, following days of often-violent demonstrations.

Many of the victims of the crash were university students returning to the northern city of Thessaloniki after a public holiday. Next-of-kin DNA samples were used to identify the bodies, many burned and dismembered, that were pulled out of the wreckage over several days last week.

Twelve of the victims were students from the University of Thessaloniki, where several memorial events were held Monday and a statue at the entrance of a campus area was covered in pieces of black tarp as a sign of mourning. At a demonstration in the city Sunday crash survivor Stefanos Gogakos described his escape from a damaged rail car. “When the front carriages were smashed by the collision, our own rail car, the fifth, was shaken and lifted into the air. I hit my head on the roof, others fell down ... All the windows shattered. We all felt the shards,” Gogakos told The Associated Press.

“It was chaos in the rail car: No lights, children crying, women screaming ... We made it out with our cellphone flashlights. One guy had a broken leg, and I remember someone lifting up a woman and carrying her on his back.”

The country’s center-right government has come under fire for initially blaming human error alone for the disaster, a conclusion later expanded by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who faces a general election before the summer.

In a letter sent Monday to a senior prosecutor heading the disaster investigation, Mitsotakis requested that the apparent lack of safety infrastructure be given priority in the probe.

“Greek society is still under the shock of the tragic accident in Tempe,” government spokesman Giannis Oikonomou said Monday.

“Feelings of pain, grief and anger abound, as no one has yet managed to come to terms with this horrible, abominable event.”

Authorities say 56 out of the 57 victims have now been identified. ___

Gatopoulos reported from Athens, Greece.