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Strikes and protests bring Greece to halt on anniversary of deadly train crash

Tens of thousands of people have joined protests in Greece, with strike action bringing the country to a standstill, on the first anniversary of a deadly train crash blamed on decades of poor railway management.

As church bells tolled in memory of the 57 men and women who lost their lives in an accident deemed entirely preventable, protesters gathered in major cities to demand justice for the victims.

In Athens, where clashes erupted outside parliament, 20,000 marched through the city centre before convening outside the central offices of Hellenic Train. Many chanted “their profits, our lives”, referring to a utility acquired by the Italian state at the height of Greece’s sovereign debt crisis.

The tragedy, which also left dozens injured, occurred when a passenger train carrying more than 350 people – mostly students – returning from a holiday weekend in Athens careened head-on into a freight train. The locomotives collided at high speed as the Thessaloniki-bound train emerged a little before midnight from a tunnel near Tempe in central Greece. On impact, its front carriages erupted into a fireball. One young man, the only survivor among those seated in the worst-affected carriages, is still in hospital in a coma.

Survivors have spoken of being ejected from carriage windows, with many admitting to being haunted by memories of struggling through plumes of acrid smoke to free themselves after the train buckled.

The collision was the deadliest train crash ever in Greece. It prompted three days of national mourning, widespread protests and a wave of furious grief in the weeks that followed. It remains among the worst rail accidents in living memory in Europe.

Twelve months later, with an official inquiry still continuing and victims’ families no nearer to getting the justice they long for, the anger of ordinary Greeks has not waned. For many the accident has become symbolic not only of the worst failings of a transport system bereft of basic safety standards but the wider neglect of a dysfunctional public service.

Taking to the streets in Athens on Wednesday, demonstrators decried the lack of progress by MPs overseeing a parliamentary inquiry into the crash. “They’re more interested in cover-up, be that covering up for each other or the deficiencies of the [railway] system,” said Irene Douraki, eliciting nods of consent from fellow students marching through the capital. “It’s disgraceful that nobody has been called to account, that a trial hasn’t taken place, that there’s been no justice for the dead.”

Under Greek law, MPs in the 300-seat House are immune from prosecution, with perceived wrongdoing subject to investigation only by parliament. A petition to scrap the immunity has been signed in recent weeks by about 800,000 people.

Trade unions called on the entire public sector, ranging from rail and hospital workers to ship crews and schoolteachers, to participate in Wednesday’s strike.

“One year on, we are back on the streets to shout that we do not forget,” declared ADEDY, which represents more than half a million state employees. “Those responsible for the tragedy have still not answered for their criminal acts.”

As the strike action and protests paralysed the nation, the prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, vowed that those responsible for a disaster he described as a “national trauma” would be brought to justice.

Initially the centre-right leader had blamed the crash solely on human error before being put on the back foot in the face of public outrage and accepting that systemic shortcomings had also played a role.

In a statement marking the anniversary, Mitsotakis said in the year that had elapsed parliament had “examined tens of witnesses and examined hundreds of factors to investigate how human error had fatally met with persistent state failure”.

The government has signalled that a trial will probably begin in June. A stationmaster blamed for putting the passenger train on the wrong track – both locomotives hurtled towards one another in the same lane for several kilometres – is among the 34 railway employees who have been detained pending the hearing. “Only justice can throw light on the matter, which is what we all want,” the prime minister said.

Relatives of the victims, as well as survivors, have made clear they have little faith in the official inquiry, insisting instead that all the evidence points to the freight train carrying illegal cargo. Last year they set up their own committee of experts arguing that state-appointed investigators had not only wasted time but overlooked vital evidence. Costas Lakafossis, an accident investigator commissioned by the families, said this week the explosive nature of the collision had been “unnatural”, given that Greece’s rail network is electrified.

“We ought to investigate the cause of the fire that erupted,” he told reporters adding that at least five people had died as a result of the inferno engulfing carriages. As a result, many of the bodies of the dead were charred beyond recognition, with the remains of one woman never found.

Authorities, Lakafossis claimed, had not only failed to properly investigate the crime but had gone out of their way to hide potentially incriminating evidence.

“On the third day [after the crash], a bulldozer had been sent in to flatten the area … TV channels clearly show trucks being loaded with earth,” he said adding that by having the scene of the crash cleared and gravelled over key evidence “was deliberately disappeared”.

Maria Karystianou, who lost her 20-year-old daughter Marthi in the accident has vowed to take the case to the European court of human rights. She said traces of chemicals used to “adulterate fuel” had been found at the site.

“The state is still playing with our pain,” she said. “I have no faith whatsoever in the Greek judicial system.”

On Wednesday, it was the memory of loved ones grieving families wanted to honour amid wreaths and flowers left at the crash site.

“Today is a day of pain,” said Antonis Psaropoulos, Marthi’s distraught father.

“For all of us, time stopped on 28 February 2023, a cursed day … a black hole in time.”