The stationmaster implicated in Greece’s deadliest rail crash, which killed at least 57 people, was charged and taken into custody Sunday, hours after the prime minister asked for forgiveness for the disaster.
On the streets, public anger over the deaths exploded into violence at demonstrations to protest the longstanding neglect of rail safety and to mourn the victims.
A legal source told AFP that the 59-year-old stationmaster, who has been named as Vassilis Samaras, was charged over his role in the “death of a large number of people" and taken into custody. Under Greek law, the offence carries a sentence of between 10 years and life.
Early on Sunday, ahead of a memorial service in Athens, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis wrote a message addressed to the nation.
“As prime minister, I owe it to everyone, but especially to the victims’ relatives, (to ask for) forgiveness," he wrote.
“For the Greece of 2023, two trains heading in different directions cannot run on the same line and no one notice," Mitsotakis wrote in the message posted on his Facebook page.
In the coming days, the minister in charge will announce immediate measures to improve railway safety, he added.
Greece would also seek the help and advice of the European Commission — as well as funding — to upgrade and modernise the country’s rail system.
Grief and anger
At the small station of Rapsani, near the accident site, local people left red and white carnations and lit candles along the track on Sunday.
Greek television showed harrowing images of weeping parents clamouring for information of children who had been aboard the train and berating authorities for what had happened.
The crash between a passenger and a freight train near the central city of Larissa on Tuesday night has sparked widespread outrage across Greece.
Thousands of angry demonstrators — police estimated the number at 12,000 people — gathered by the large esplanade in front of the parliament to demand accountability for the disaster.
Some protesters held signs reading “Down with killer governments".
AFP journalists saw violent clashes erupt between police and some of the demonstrators. Police said seven officers were hurt and five arrests were made after demonstrators set fire to rubbish bins and threw Molotov cocktails.
Police responded by firing tear gas and stun grenades to clear the square.
Hellenic Train, the rail company that has become the focus of some of the anger expressed in the wake of the crash, defended its actions in a statement late Saturday.
Its staff were quick to reach the scene of the disaster and had been working closely with rescue teams and the authorities ever since, it said.
Hundreds of people demonstrated during the week outside their Athens headquarters, and one legal source has said that investigators are looking at the possibility of bringing charges against senior members of the company.
Just as hard questions are also being asked of the government over its failure to pursue rail safety reforms, rail union officials have insisted they warned the company about the safety issues on the line.
Many of the crash victims were students returning from a weekend break.
At least nine young people studying at Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University were among those killed on the passenger train.
‘New elements’ in the case
In his message on Sunday, Mitsotakis addressed the question of responsibility, saying they did not wish to hide behind the issue of human error.
Details have emerged in the Greek media of the stationmaster’s relative inexperience in the post and the fact that he was left unsupervised during a busy holiday weekend.
His lawyer, Stefanos Pantzartsidis, has insisted that while his client had admitted some responsibility, this was not the whole story. “In the case, there are important new elements that need to be examined," he said Saturday.
Kostas Genidounias, head of the train drivers’ union OSE, has said they had already warned the authorities about safety failings on the line where the crash happened.
Union leaders at Hellenic Train sounded the alarm just three weeks ago.
“We are not going to wait for the accident to happen to see those responsible shed crocodile tears," they said at the time.
In Vatican City Sunday, Pope Francis offered prayers for the victims of the crash. “I am praying for the deceased," he said. “I am near the wounded and to their relatives. May Our Lady comfort them."
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