At least 36 people were killed when a passenger train and a freight train collided in northern Greece, with an impact so intense that cranes were being used to remove wreckage in the search for survivors, a Greek fire service official said on Wednesday.
The cause of the crash, which happened just before midnight on Tuesday near the small town of Tempe, was not immediately clear. About 350 passengers were on the train as it traveled north from Athens to Thessaloniki, according to Hellenic Train, which operated the route.
The crash was the worst rail disaster in Greece in decades. In 1968, 34 people died after two passenger trains collided near Corinth, a little more than 40 miles west of Athens.
Eighty-five people were taken to hospitals with injuries, and 66 were admitted, the Greek fire service said in a statement. With the recovery operation still underway, there were fears that the death toll would rise.
“Windows were shattering and people were screaming,” a young man, who was not identified, told a television crew after surviving the crash. “There was panic in the carriage. A huge chunk of metal from the other train had come through one of the windows.”
Several carriages derailed upon impact, and at least three caught fire. A spokeswoman for the Greek police, Constantina Dimoglidou, said the process of identifying the dead had begun at a hospital in the city of Larissa, about 20 miles south of Tempe, asking relatives of passengers to call a hotline for information.
Most of the victims were young, Greece’s health minister, Thanos Plevris, told reporters outside the hospital. “It is a terrible process for parents and relatives,” he said.
Vasileios Vathrakoyiannis, a spokesman for the fire service, said at a televised briefing that the rescue operation was “currently concentrated on the two first carriages of the passenger train, which have overturned.” He said four cranes were being used.
Television footage showed red cranes looming over the twisted, charred wreckage, as police and rescue workers in fluorescent jackets surveyed the scene.
“This is a terrible night,” Kostas Agorastos, the governor of the Thessaly region, said on television. He said two of the carriages “basically don’t exist anymore. Because of the strength of the impact they were thrown into the air.”
The army was assisting with the rescue operation, and Greece’s minister for civil protection, Christos Stylianides, was coordinating the state’s response, while Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was on his way to the scene.
“There were many big pieces of steel,” Vassilis Polyzos, a local resident, told The Associated Press. “The trains were completely destroyed, both passenger and freight trains.”
Mr. Polyzos said he could see people who appeared to be dazed and disoriented trying to flee from the trains as he arrived on the scene. “People, naturally, were scared — very scared,” he said. “They were looking around, searching; they didn’t know where they were.”