When he heard the news of the deadly train crash in central Greece, 24-year-old student Konstantinos rushed to the city where the injured had been taken to search for three friends who had been on the train.

Unable to reach them by phone, the wait has been long and worrying.

“We’re here waiting. They’re not among the injured, they’re not among the dead,” said Konstantinos, a fisheries student who declined to give his last name.

“It’s tragic. We’re just waiting. You don’t know what’s worse. We’re just waiting,” he said.

A passenger train collided head-on with a cargo train late on Tuesday, throwing entire carriages off the tracks and killing at least 36 people, many of them students, in the country’s deadliest rail crash in living memory.

Passengers described a “nightmarish” crash which shattered their train just before midnight near the central town of Larissa. It had departed from capital Athens and was headed to the northern city of Thessaloniki after a long holiday weekend.

Konstantinos’ friends were in carriage five, he said. They were in touch with another friend as the train approached Larissa, telling him that they were almost home. That was the last anyone heard from them.

“When I woke up this morning I couldn’t believe what happened,” Konstantinos said. “We’re on standby. It’s soul-wrenching. It eats at you.”

Carriages were engulfed by fire, which sent thick plumes of smoke billowing into the sky.

Authorities said the death toll was expected to rise. Temperatures in the first carriage rose to a staggering 1,300 degrees Celsius (2,370°F), burning people to death.

Officials said some of the bodies would require DNA testing to identify them.

Inside the overwhelmed hospitals, Konstantinos described scenes of “chaos.”

“There’s a lot of misinformation. You hear names of hospitals where they sent people, but then it turns out they didn’t send them there,” he said. “You see politicians coming and going but I find it a bit pointless.”

Outside the hospital, a priest was offering support to the families and friends of the victims.

“There are no words to describe this,” Father Stefanos said. “What can you tell people who lost their children, people who sent what is most valuable to them to study and now they’re in a hospital waiting for answers?”