TEMPE, Greece — A head-on collision between a passenger train and a freight train flattened carriages, killed at least 36 people and injured some 85, Greek officials said Wednesday.
Before dawn the next day, rescuers searched through twisted, smoking wreckage for survivors. What appeared to be the third carriage lay atop the clumped remains of the first two.
Multiple cars derailed and at least three burst into flames after the two trains ran into each other at high speed just before midnight Tuesday, near the town of Tempe in northern Greece.
Many of the approximately 350 people aboard the passenger train were students returning from Greece's raucous Carnival, officials said. This year was the first time the three-day festival, which precedes Lent, was celebrated in full since the start of the pandemic in 2020.
"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."
On Wednesday, the government declared three days of national mourning.
"This is an indescribable tragedy," government spokesman Giannis Oikonomou said, adding that 500 workers from emergency services were at the scene of the crash.
After sunrise, rescuers turned to heavy machinery to start moving large pieces of the trains, revealing more bodies and dismembered remains. Officials said the army had been contacted to assist.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was to visit the scene later in the day.
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.
The trains crashed just before the Vale of Tempe, a gorge that separates the regions of Thessaly and Macedonia.
Survivors said the impact threw several passengers through the windows of train cars. They said others fought to free themselves after the passenger train buckled, slamming into a field near the gorge, about 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.
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.
More than 200 people who were unharmed in the crash or suffered minor injuries were transported by bus to Thessaloniki, 80 miles to the north. Police took their names as they arrived, in an effort to track anyone who may be missing.
The cause of the collision was not immediately clear. Two rail officials were being questioned by police but had not been detained.
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.
Hellenic Train is operated by Italy's FS Group, which runs rail services in several European countries.