By Alexandros Avramidis and Renee Maltezou
LARISSA, Greece - At least 36 people were killed in Greece when a passenger train and a cargo train collided head-on, throwing entire carriages off the tracks on Tuesday night in the country's deadliest rail crash in living memory.
Dozens more were injured in the crash and the fire that followed. Officials said the death toll was expected to rise further.
A station master was arrested as investigators tried to understand why the two trains had been on the same track.
"There was panic ... the fire was immediate, as we were turning over we were being burned, fire was right and left," said Stergios Minenis, a 28-year-old passenger who jumped to safety from the wreckage.
A passenger who escaped from the fifth carriage told Skai TV: "Windows were being smashed and people were screaming ... One of the windows caved in from the impact of iron from the other train."
Rescuers continued to scour through the smouldering mangled mass of steel in the morning, and cranes lifted derailed passenger carriages, their windows blown out. One carriage stood on its side at almost 90 degrees from the rest of the wrecked train, with others tilting precariously.
Flags flew at half-mast in Athens in a tribute to the victims of the crash, as the government declared three days of national mourning.
Many of the victims were thought to be university students on their way back from a long holiday weekend.
"It's an unthinkable tragedy. Our thoughts today are with the relatives of the victims," Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said at the site of the crash, looking shattered.
The local station master, in charge of signalling, has been arrested and charged with causing mass deaths through negligence and causing grievous bodily harm through negligence, a police official said.
The 59-year-old man has denied any responsibility for the accident, attributing it to a possible technical failure, the official said.
The crash occurred as the passenger train that was headed to the northern Greece city of Thessaloniki from the capital Athens emerged from a tunnel near the town of Larissa.
Government spokesman Giannis Oikonomou said the two trains had been running towards each other on the same track "for many kilometres" before the crash.
Yiannis Ditsas, head of the Greek railway workers union told Skai television that automatic signalling at the spot of the crash had not been working. There was no immediate official comment on this.
'MUM, I'M HURT'
The passenger train was carrying 342 travellers and 10 crew, while two crew were on the cargo train, according to Hellenic Train data.
Sixty-six of those injured were hospitalised, six of whom in intensive care, a fire brigade official said.
Survivors were evacuated to Thessaloniki, where one woman ran to embrace her daughter as she disembarked from a bus with other survivors.
"Mum don't, I'm hurt," the daughter said. Another woman, who was waiting there, said her child was not picking up the phone.
The head of the emergency unit in Larissa hospital, Apostolos Komnos, said most of the dead were young people, in their 20s.
Relatives, some in tears, others visibly angry, gathered on the hospital's ground floor to get information on the crash, a Reuters reporter saw.
DNA tests will be carried out on victims that have not been or cannot be identified, the relatives were told.
President Katerina Sakellaropoulou cut short a visit to Moldova to return to Greece.
"Even at this moment, a life-saving operation is going on to help those who are on this death train," she told a news conference in the Moldovan capital Chisinau.
The cargo train had been travelling from Thessaloniki to Larissa. Local media said the train left Athens around 7.30 pm (0530 GMT). The fire brigade said it was informed of the accident shortly before midnight.
Greece sold railway operator TRAINOSE to Italy's Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane in 2017 as part of its international bailout programme, expecting hundreds of millions of euros to be invested in rail infrastructure in the coming years.
According to the Italian company's website, it is the main provider of rail transport for passengers and freight in Greece and runs 342 passenger and commercial routes a day.
Greece's ageing railway system is in need of modernising, with many trains travelling on single tracks and signalling and automatic control systems still to be installed in many areas.