After years of pandemic-forced cancellations, Athens last weekend hosted carnival, and scores of Greeks flocked in to celebrate. Vaios Vlachos and his girlfriend, who dressed up as marble busts, were among them before they rushed to catch a night train on Tuesday that would get them home in time for work the next morning.
But shortly before midnight, the train that they and hundreds of others were traveling on collided with a freight train near Tempe, in northern Greece, killing 47 people, the worst train crash in the country’s history. Mr. Vlachos, 32, was still missing as of Wednesday night, and his girlfriend was in an intensive care unit.
“It’s wrenching,” said Mr. Vlachos’s brother, Evangelos, adding that as time passes, he loses hopes of finding his brother alive. “Every hour feels like poison.”
Greece is expected to hold a general election in the coming weeks, and although it was not yet clear if or how the accident would influence it, there were signs that the crash was reverberating in a country that has the worst train safety record in Europe.
On Wednesday in Athens, protesters clashed with the police outside the headquarters of Hellenic Train, the company responsible for maintaining Greece’s railways. Demonstrations were also reported in Larissa, near the site of the crash, and Thessaloniki, to the north. The Panhellenic Federation of Railway Employees declared a 24-hour strike, so no trains were running on Thursday in Greece.
The passenger train was carrying about 350 people, and 57 are still hospitalized, including some in intensive care. It is unclear how many people are unaccounted for.
Greece’s health minister, Thanos Plevris, said that many of the passengers were young people or college students who had possibly been taking advantage of a three-day bank holiday weekend to celebrate carnival, the period of revelry just before Lent. Thessaloniki, the train’s destination, is Greece’s second largest city, and it is known as a university city hosting tens of thousands of students.
On Wednesday night, Georgios Smirnopoulos, a taxi driver in Thessaloniki, drove by the city’s Aristotle University, the country’s largest, and pointed at it, wondering if any of the crash victims studied there.
“It was a lot of students, of young people,” he said. “Today is a tragic day.”
Mr. Vlachos and his girlfriend, who have been together for years, headed to the capital with their handcrafted costumes. They usually travel between Athens and Thessaloniki by car, Mr. Vlachos’s brother said, but higher gas prices had prompted them to instead take the train.
“To save money,” Mr. Vlachos said. “And because they thought it was safer.”
Some of the bodies have yet to be identified because the crash was so violent, leaving them unrecognizable. Mr. Vlachos’s mother gave doctors a sample of her blood in case they needed it for a DNA identification of her son.
As rescuers removed the remains of a victim from the wreckage of the two trains’ engines, one of the workers said that it was impossible to know who it was. On Thursday, some were still hoping that it was not their brother, sister or friend.
“We don’t know what happened to her,” Christina Mitska said of her 22-year-old sister, Ifigeneia Mitska. “No one has seen her.”
Across Greece, anger mounted over the country’s dismal train safety record. The two trains had raced toward each other for 12 minutes before colliding, according to the head of the Greek rail workers’ union.
A railway official said that electronic monitoring and warning systems along the track did not work properly, partly because of budget problems and partly because the system was not fully operational to prevent such accidents. The government has announced an independent investigation into the cause of the disaster.
Mr. Vlachos, awaiting word on his brother, said that it was a tragedy that the security systems that might have saved people’s lives were not in place. “If we have lost him,” he said, “I don’t think that the state or any state can make up for something like that.”