Taiwan: Dozens killed as train crashes and derails in tunnel
At least 50 people have been killed and more than 200 injured after a train carrying nearly 500 crashed and then derailed in a tunnel in Taiwan at about 09h00 local time on Friday, 2 April 2021. The eight-carriage Taroko Express reportedly hit a construction vehicle that had slipped onto the tracks at the tunnel's mouth the, derailing the carriages as they entered a stretch of tunnel just outside the east coast city of Hualien. Rescuers combed badly damaged carriages inside the tunnel to find survivors, some of whom smashed windows to flee. Investigators say CCTV footage from the front carriage showed the train driver had only 6,9 seconds to respond and the train was only 250m away from the truck, not enough time or distance for the driver to stop and avoid the collision. Both the driver and his assistant were killed. The train, from the capital Taipei to Taitung, was carrying people travelling for a long-weekend annual holiday. Many people may have been standing because the train was so full.
After derailing, the front carriages were crushed and mangled against the tunnel walls, killing dozens and trapping some passengers for hours. As recovery crews continued efforts to clear wreckage from the tunnel, investigators have focused on a construction vehicle that was parked on a maintenance road above the track before rolling down the hill side.
"According to the testimonies by some passengers, they heard the horn being sounded and it's believed the train driver had spotted an object on the track," the chair of Taiwan’s Transportation Safety Board, Dr Young Hong-tsu said.
Some people at the back of the train were able to walk away unscathed, while 100 were rescued from the first four carriages. Many of the dead, injured and trapped were in four crumpled carriages inside the tunnel.
"It felt like there was a sudden violent jolt and I found myself falling to the floor," one female survivor told Taiwan's UDN. "We broke the window to climb to the roof of the train to get out." Another rescued woman said, "My whole body fell to the floor. I hit my head and it started bleeding." A 50-year-old survivor said she saw many people trapped under their seats and when she walked out of her carriage she saw bodies everywhere.
Images show a large, yellow flatbed truck lying at the side of the tracks. A construction project has been under way near the north end of the tunnel. It is not known how the vehicle slipped down the embankment. Other pictures showed people walking along the tracks with their belongings as they were evacuated from less badly affected carriages. Other survivors were being carried away on stretchers with their necks in braces.
The truck driver, 49-year-old Lee Yi-hsiang, has been detained and prosecutors are seeking to determine if he failed to apply the handbrake or if there was a mechanical failure. On Sunday, Lee made a tearful apology, telling media, “I am deeply remorseful and want to express my most sincere apologies. I will cooperate with the investigation by Police and prosecutors to take the responsibility I should take.”
"Prosecutors will certainly step up investigation and understanding of the crimes or of other suspects involved in the case," department of prosecutorial affairs director-general Lin Jinn-tsun said.
Meanwhile, recovery teams have begun removing the rear carriages of the train, which were relatively unscathed as it had stopped outside the tunnel away from the accident spot. Other mangled sections remained in the tunnel, where fire department official Wu Liang-yun said more bodies were likely to be found. "We're still carrying out rescue work," he added.
The 408 train is one of the fastest deployed on a network that is generally considered safe. It can reach speeds of 130km/h. Friday's crash is Taiwan's worst rail disaster in decades. President Tsai Ing-wen has sent her condolences to the families of the victims and ordered an investigation.
Taiwan Premier Su Tseng-chang visited the crash site on Friday afternoon.
There have been mounting questions over how full the train was and why there were no barricades on that section of the track. This led to Taiwan's transport minister, Lin Chia-lung, offering his resignation on Sunday. On Facebook, he wrote, "I should have accepted all the criticism over the past few days but we have not done well enough." The government has not accepted his resignation, however, and said he should stay in the position until the investigation was complete.
Flags across the island are being be flown at half mast for three days. Among those honouring the victims were baseball players from the Fubon Guardians team, who observed a minute's silence ahead of a game on Friday.
The island's worst crash in recent history was in 1991, when 30 passengers were killed and 112 injured after two trains collided.
Sources: BBC, The Guardian, Associated Press