A passenger train carrying hundreds of people, including many university students returning home from holiday, collided at high speed with an oncoming freight train in a fiery wreck in northern Greece, killing at least 36 people and injuring some 85, officials said Wednesday.
Multiple cars derailed and at least three burst into flames after the collision just before midnight Tuesday near the town of Tempe as the passenger train was emerging from a highway underpass.
Rescue crews illuminated the scene with floodlights before dawn on Wednesday as they searched frantically through the twisted, smoking wreckage for survivors.
After sunrise, they turned to heavy machinery that had been brought in to start moving large pieces of the trains. What appeared to be the passenger train’s third carriage lay atop the crumpled remains of the first two, where emergency crews were directing their focus.
Officials said many of the passengers on board the Athens to Thessaloniki train had been university students returning home after celebrating Carnival over the long weekend.
“This is a terrible tragedy that is hard to comprehend,” said Deputy Health Minister Mina Gaga. “I feel so sorry for the parents of these kids.”
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was to visit the scene later in the day.
Survivors said several passengers were thrown through the windows of the train cars due to the impact. They said others fought to free themselves after the passenger train buckled, slamming into a field near a gorge, about 380 kilometers (235 miles) north of Athens.
“There were many big pieces of steel,” said Vassilis Polyzos, a local resident who said he was one of the first people on the scene. “The trains were completely destroyed, both passenger and freight trains.”
He said dazed and disoriented people were escaping out of the train’s rear cars as he arrived.
“People, naturally, were scared – very scared,” he said. “They were looking around, searching; they didn’t know where they were.”
Eight rail employees were among those killed in the crash, including the two drivers of the freight train and the two drivers of the passenger train, according to Greek Railroad Workers Union President Yannis Nitsas.
The trains crashed just before the Vale of Tempe, a gorge that separates the regions of Thessaly and Macedonia. Costas Agorastos, the regional governor of the Thessaly area, told Greece’s Skai Television the two trains collided head on at high speed.
“Carriage one and two no longer exist, and the third has derailed,” he said.
Rescuers wearing head lamps worked in thick smoke, pulling pieces of mangled metal from the cars to search for trapped people. Others scoured the field with flashlights and checked underneath the wreckage. Several of the dead are believed to have been found in the restaurant car near the front of the passenger train.
Greece’s firefighting service said some 66 people were hospitalized, including six in intensive care.
“The evacuation process is ongoing and is being carried out under very difficult conditions due to the severity of the collision between the two trains,” said fire service spokesperson Vassilis Varthakoyiannis.
The possible cause of the collision was not immediately clear. Two rail officials were being questioned by police but had not been detained.
Passengers who received minor injuries or were unharmed were transported by bus to Thessaloniki, 130 kilometers (80 miles) to the north. Police took their names as they arrived, in an effort to track anyone who may be missing.
A teenage survivor who did not give his name to reporters said that just before the crash he felt a strong braking and saw sparks – then there was a sudden stop.
“Our carriage didn’t derail, but the ones in front did and were smashed,” he said, visibly shaken.
He added that the first car caught fire and that he used a bag to break the window of his car, the fourth, and escape.
Rail operator Hellenic Train said the northbound passenger train to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city, had about 350 passengers on board.
Agorastos described the collision on state television as “very powerful” and said it was “a terrible night.”
“The front section of the train was smashed. … We’re getting cranes to come in and special lifting equipment to clear the debris and lift the rail cars. There’s debris flung all around the crash site.”
Officials said the army had been contacted to assist.
Hellenic Train, which has added high-speed services in recent years, is operated by Italy’s FS Group, which runs rail services in several European countries.