Greece train crash. ‘We’re talking about a crime. It wasn’t just an accident’

ONE YEAR AFTER Kathimerini met two survivors of the InterCity 62 train disaster at the Thessaloniki railway station where they should have arrived on the evening of February 28, 2023. Dimitris Kostarellos and Stavroula Kapsali spoke about how their lives changed after the crash at Tempe, the trauma and the justice they seek.

“Even today, the 10 seconds of the collision haunt me,” he said. The 21-year-old was sitting with his friend in the fourth carriage, which caught fire after the passenger train and a freight train collided a year ago, leaving 57 dead.

“We overturned. We were surrounded by grease, broken glass. A fire broke out inside the cabin. The curtain, my bag, everything had caught fire. The first thing we thought was to extinguish the fire to avoid burning alive. We were trying to put it out with our bare hands. And I remember it vividly: We didn’t feel pain. You become savage in that moment.” Memories of the fire in the carriage began to resurface. “It smelled like death. Hell.”

“Everyone in front of us died. I can’t believe I was there.” Dimitris still can’t comprehend that luck was the only thing that saved him from death at that moment.

‘Some mourn their relatives. I mourn for a former self that was left behind on that train, that vanished in just a few minutes’ 

The period that followed was very difficult for him. As he said, he sought immediate psychiatric support and was prescribed medication, which he continues to take to this day. “Some mourn their relatives. I mourn for a former self that was left behind on that train, that vanished in just a few minutes.”

Stavroula Kapsali often has the same thoughts. Although the two of them were both at the scene of the tragedy, they met for the first time later in group psychotherapy sessions organized by Thessaloniki’s AHEPA Hospital, and they have kept in touch since then. “The empathetic resonance you feel with the people who were there, no one else can understand it. Not my sister, my mother, or my friend,” emphasizes the 42-year-old.

Entering the train that night, Stavroula had followed all her personal safety protocols. She had reserved a seat “toward the rear of the train” and near the coupling between two carriages so that if something happened, she could leave quickly. It was what saved her that night.

“I heard a creak and we shook. Through the window, I remember seeing sparks.” The lights in her carriage never went out, yet when they managed to open the coupling’s door, she saw chaos in the adjacent carriage. “I tormented myself with guilt. How did I do this at the expense of other people? I chose one seat while those in the others died.”

As she speaks, her hands tremble, and she cannot hold back her tears. Only now, after so many months, has she managed to switch off the light in the bedroom and sleep a little more soundly. “I watch TV alone and wonder if I really exist,” she said.

The only positive thing, as she said, from this traumatic experience was that it served as a turning point for her.

Dimitris feels the same way. “I think that having survived, I must do something.”

What can redeem them is one thing: a fair trial for the Tempe rail crash. “It’s a moral issue. We’re talking about a crime. It wasn’t just an accident,” Stavroula said. “I want exemplary punishment. Fifty-seven times for the dead, plus one, 58 for the survivors.”

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