Taiwan’s worst train accident in decades, which killed at least 50 people and injured 146 others, was caused by a runaway truck that rolled down a hillside from a construction site above the track, officials said on Friday.
The eight-car Taroko Express carrying 492 passengers was en route to the southeastern coastal city of Taitung from New Taipei City when the accident happened near Chongde, Hualien, at about 9.30am, the Taiwan Railway Administration said.
“The train was about to enter Chingshui Tunnel when it collided with a truck that had rolled down an embankment from a construction site,” Feng Hui-sheng, deputy director general of the administration, said at a news conference in Taipei.
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The first two carriages of the train derailed after striking the truck and forcing parts of it into the tunnel. The train’s engineer, Yuan Chun-hsiu, 33, and mechanic, Chiang Pei-feng, 32, who were travelling in the first carriage, were killed on impact, Feng said.
Several of the following carriages were crushed as they slammed into the walls of the tunnel. The carriages at the end of the train that did not reach the tunnel were less badly damaged, he said.
Among the passengers killed was a French citizen, Feng said, adding that two Japanese and a Macau citizen were among the 146 being treated in hospital for their injuries.
An initial investigation showed the truck which caused the accident was parked at a construction site on a slope above the railway line. The vehicle had been left there that morning by the head of the site, who was identified as 49-year-old Lee Yi-hsiang, Feng said.
“We are investigating if the truck’s brakes had been put on properly or if there were other human or mechanical errors involved,” he said.
Taiwanese leaders, including President Tsai Ing-wen and Premier Su Tseng-chang, ordered the relevant authorities to do their best to support the rescue effort and ensure proper treatment for the injured passengers.
“We deeply regret the accident … and will do our best to make sure all people affected are well taken care of,” Su said, adding that the rescue operation and providing assistance for the families of the deceased and the injured would be the priorities over finding out who was to blame for the tragedy.
Government departments would lower their flags to half-mast for three days from Sunday as a mark of respect for those killed, according to Su’s office.
Tsai, who went to Hualien to visit some of the people in hospital, said the authorities had already started an investigation into the cause of the accident and would make public its findings as soon as possible.
Transport Minister Lin Chia-lung expressed his regret for the accident but said he would not resign until he had dealt with the aftermath.
“I feel bad about the accident … and I will take full responsibility for it,” he said.
He also apologised for the inconvenience caused to other rail travellers.
The railway administration said all eastbound train services would be suspended until the crashed train had been removed and the damage to the track repaired.
Taiwan’s deputy transport minister Wang Kuo-tsai said the families of those killed would each receive compensation of up to NT$5.4 million (US$189,000).
“We will do our best to help the bereaved families and make sure they receive the highest amount of compensation,” he said.
The Hualien Fire Department said that as of 6.30pm all of the passengers who had been trapped in the train carriages had been freed.
The rescue operation was hampered by the fact that some of the carriages had been badly mangled.
“The limited space in the narrow tunnel made it difficult for us to locate the survivors and get them out,” said Lan Ping-chih, one of the rescuers.
Some of the deaths were caused by people being crushed inside the train, while others were thrown from it onto the track, he said.
“We found seven or eight bodies in one of the carriages and they were all incomplete,” he said.
Local television footage showed dozens of passengers climbing onto the roof of the carriages and shouting for help before being rescued and taken to safety.
“I heard a loud bumping sound and soon after the train crashed,” a passenger told SET TV. “I thought I had a broken arm, but luckily it is OK,” he said.
Another passenger said that all of the lights inside the carriages went out when the train crashed.
“It was a mess inside the train with a number of passengers falling on the floor and their belongings scattering all over,” she said.
Taiwanese media said the train had been crowded and that many passengers were standing at the time of the crash, which meant they were tossed about by the force of the impact.
Transport officials said they would investigate if any laws had been broken regarding passenger numbers.
Friends and relatives of those involved in the crash were seen on television anxiously waiting for news at Taitung station.
“My son is supposed to return home for tomb sweeping, but I have yet to hear from him,” one person said.
The accident happened at the start of a long weekend for the traditional Chinese tomb sweeping festival, when people return home to remember their late ancestors by cleaning their graves.
The Chinese mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office offered its condolences to the families of those killed and injured in the accident.
“The mainland’s relevant authorities are closely following the development of the case and offer condolence and regards” to those affected.
In 2018, a Puyuma Express train derailed in northeast Taiwan’s Yilan county, killing 18 people and injuring 170. Thirty people were killed in a train crash in Taiwan in 1981.
Note: this story was amended on Saturday, April 3 to correct the number of passengers on board
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