ATHENS, Greece (AP) – A train station manager accused of causing Greece’s deadliest train disaster has been charged with involuntary manslaughter and jailed pending trial on Sunday, while Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis apologized for any responsibility the Greek government may have for the could bear tragedy.
A coroner and a prosecutor agreed that multiple charges of manslaughter, assault and endangering road safety should be brought against the railway worker.
At least 57 people, many in their teens and 20s, were killed when a northbound passenger train and a southbound freight train collided north of the city of Larissa in central Greece late Tuesday.
The 59-year-old stationmaster is said to have steered the two opposing trains onto the same track. He spent 7 1/2 hours on Sunday testifying about the events leading up to the crash before being charged and arrested.
“My client has testified truthfully without fear of incriminating him,” Stephanos Pantzartzidis, the station master’s lawyer, told reporters. “The decision (to put him in prison) was expected given the importance of the case.”
Pantzartzidis, hinting that others besides his client were to blame, said the judges should investigate whether there should have been more than one station master working in Larissa at the time of the collision.
“For twenty minutes he was responsible for (train) safety throughout central Greece,” the lawyer said of his client.
Greek media have reported that the automatic signaling system in the area of the crash was not working, allowing for the station master’s error. Stationmasters along this part of Greece’s main line communicate with each other and with the train drivers via radio equipment, and the switches are operated manually.
The prime minister promised a speedy investigation into the collision and said Greece’s new transport minister would publish a plan to improve safety. Once a new parliament takes office, a commission will also be appointed to investigate decades of mismanagement of the country’s rail system, Mitsotakis said.
In an initial statement on Wednesday, Mitsotakis said the crash was due to “tragic human error”. Opposition parties pounced on the remark, accusing the prime minister of obscuring the state’s role and scapegoating the inexperienced stationmaster.
“I owe everyone and especially the families of the victims a huge apology, both personally and on behalf of everyone who has ruled the country for many years,” Mitsotakis wrote on Facebook on Sunday. “In 2023, it is unthinkable that two trains could go in different directions on the same track and nobody would notice. We can, we don’t want to and we must not hide behind human error.”
Greek railways have long suffered from chronic mismanagement, including wasteful spending on projects that were eventually abandoned or significantly delayed, Greek media have reported in multiple revelations. According to media reports, maintenance work has been postponed in view of the billions in debt of the state railway company Hellenic Railways.
A retired railway union leader, Panayotis Paraskevopoulos, told the Greek newspaper Kathimerini that the signaling system in the area monitored by the Larissa station master malfunctioned six years ago and was never repaired.
Police and prosecutors have not identified the station master in accordance with Greek law. However, Hellenic Railways, also known as OSE, announced the name of the stationmaster in an announcement on Saturday that suspended the company inspector who appointed him. The station master was also suspended.
Greek media have reported that the station manager, a former porter at the railway company, was transferred to a desk job at the education ministry in 2011 when Greece’s creditors called for a reduction in the number of public employees. The 59-year-old was transferred back to the railway in mid-2022 and began a 5-month training course to become a station manager.
After completing the course, 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, days before the Feb. 28 collision, Greek media reported.
On Sunday, rail unions organized a protest rally in central Athens, attended by about 12,000 people, authorities said.
Five people were arrested and seven police officers injured when a group of more than 200 masked people dressed in black began throwing pieces of marble, stones, bottles and incendiary bombs at officers who were tearing down a central avenue in the city with gas and flashbang grenades.
In Thessaloniki, around 3,000 people took part in two protest rallies. Several of the crash victims were students at the city’s Aristotle University, the largest in Greece with over 50,000 students.
The larger protest, organized by left-wing activists, marched towards a government building. No incidents were reported at this event.
The other, staged by Communist Party members at the city’s landmark White Tower, saw a brief scuffle with police as protesters attempted to plant a banner on the monument.
“The Communist Party organized a symbolic protest outside the White Tower today to denounce the crime in Tempe because it is a premeditated crime, a crime committed by the company and the bourgeois state that supports these companies,” he said Giannis Delis, a communist lawmaker, told The Associated Press.
Kantouris reported from Thessaloniki, Greece