ATHENS, Greece (AP) — A station master has been charged with causing Greece’s worst train disaster. He was jailed Sunday on charges of negligent homicide, while Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis apologized for any responsibility the Greek government may have borne for the tragedy.
An investigating magistrate and a prosecutor agreed that the railway employee should be charged with multiple counts of murder, grievous bodily harm and endangering traffic safety.
At least 57 people, many of them teenagers and in their 20s, were killed when a northbound passenger train and a southbound freight train collided late Tuesday north of the city of Larissa in central Greece.
The 59-year-old station master allegedly directed two trains traveling in opposite directions on the same track. He testified about the events for 7 1/2 hours Sunday leading to the accident before he was charged and ordered.
“My client testified truthfully, without fear of being accused if he did so,” the station master’s lawyer, Stephanos Pontsartsidis, told reporters. “The decision (to imprison him) was expected given the importance of the case.”
Panttsartsidis, noting that others besides his client shared the blame, said the jury should have investigated whether more than one stationmaster should have been working at Larissa at the time of the collision.
“For 20 minutes, he was in charge of (rail) security in all of Central Greece,” the lawyer said of his client.
Greek media reported that the station master was at fault because the automatic signaling system was not working in the area of the crash. Station masters on that part of Greece’s main trunk line communicate with each other and with train drivers by two-way radios, and switches are operated manually.
The prime minister promised a swift investigation into the collision and said the new Greek transport minister would unveil a safety improvement plan. Once a new parliament is in place, a commission will be named to investigate decades of mismanagement of the country’s railway system, Mitsotakis said.
In an initial statement Wednesday, Mitsotakis said the crash was the result of “unfortunate human error.” Opposition parties strongly objected to this comment and accused the Prime Minister of trying to hide the government’s role The inexperienced station master was scapegoated.
“I offer a big apology to everyone, especially the relatives of the victims, personally and on behalf of all those who ruled the country for so many years,” Mitsotakis wrote on Facebook on Sunday. “In 2023, it is unthinkable that two trains will be moving in different directions on the same track and nobody will notice. We cannot, we will not, we must not hide behind human error.
Greece’s railways have been plagued by chronic mismanagement, including lavish spending on projects that were eventually abandoned or significantly delayed, Greek media have reported in several exposés. State railway company Hellenic Railways is billions of euros in debt and maintenance work has been halted, according to news reports.
Panayotis Paraskevopoulos, a retired railway union leader, told Greek newspaper Kathimerini that the signaling system in the area overseen by the Larissa station master broke down six years ago and has not been repaired.
In accordance with Greek law, police and prosecutors have not identified the station master. However, Hellenic Railways, also known as OSE, revealed the name of the station master on Saturday in a notice to suspend the company inspector who appointed him. The station master has also been suspended.
Greek media reported that the station master, a former porter at a railway company, was transferred to a desk job at the Ministry of Education in 2011 when Greece’s creditors demanded a reduction in the number of civil servants. The 59-year-old was transferred back to the railway company in mid-2022 and began a 5-month course to train as a station master.
After completing his studies, he was assigned to Larissa on January 23, according to his own Facebook post. However, he spent the next month rotating between other stations before returning to Larissa in late February, just days before the February 28 clash, Greek media reported.
On Sunday, railway unions organized a protest rally Officials said around 12,000 people attended in central Athens.
Five people were arrested and seven police officers were injured when more than 200 masked, black-clad individuals began hurling marbles, rocks, bottles and firebombs at officers. Gas and stun grenades.
In Thessaloniki, around 3,000 people attended two protest rallies. Many of the victims were students from Aristotle University, Greece’s largest with more than 50,000 students.
A large protest organized by left-wing activists marched to the government building. No incident occurred in the event.
In another, held by members of the Communist Party at the city’s signature monument, the White Tower, protesters briefly clashed with police as they attempted to place a banner at the monument.
“The Communist Party held a sign protest in front of the White Tower today to condemn the crime in Tempe, because it was a planned crime, a crime committed by the corporation and the capitalist state that supports these institutions,” said a communist, Giannis Teles. The lawmaker told The Associated Press.
Kontouris reported from Thessaloniki, Greece