(Hualien) At least 50 people, including a French, were killed Friday as a crowded train derailed into a tunnel in eastern Taiwan, in the worst train accident on the island in decades.
Authorities said the accident was caused by a construction machine after sliding off a bridge and colliding with a train that was about to enter a tunnel near the coastal town of Hualien.
“There was a construction machine that was not properly parked and slipped onto the railways,” Tsai Ding-hsin, head of Hualien County Police Department, told reporters.
“This is our first conclusion and we are trying to clarify the cause of the accident,” he added.
Pictures taken by local media immediately show the back of a yellow flatbed truck lying on its side near the train.
The Taiwan Railways Agency reported that at least 50 people were killed and 146 passengers hospitalized.
One of the dead was a Frenchman, and among the wounded two Japanese, a resident of Macau. A previous report had reported 51 deaths.
TVBS quoted a survivor as saying that some of the trapped passengers were crying when calling for help, while others were unconscious.
“A lot of it was squeezed under the seats,” said the woman, who was not identified.
President Tsai Ing-wen visited the Emergency Relief Center in the capital, Taipei. “We will definitely determine the cause of this accident, which claimed the lives of a large number of victims,” she told reporters.
The accident occurred on the railway line in eastern Taiwan at about 9:30 a.m. near the port city of Hualien.
Pile of papers
Pictures posted on the website of the local newspaper UDN show the front of the train, inside the tunnel, which is just a pile of sheet metal.
In Taiwan Red Cross footage, rescuers wearing helmets and lamps walk on the roof of a broken train into the tunnel to reach survivors.
Rescuers worked for hours to reach the people trapped in the tunnel, using chainsaws to pull them through twisted metal sheets.
By mid-afternoon, no one was in the vehicles, the authorities said, but rescuers remained there, according to Agence France-Presse journalists.
Due to earthquakes regularly rocking the island, Taiwan has seen rescue workers always ready to respond and help people stranded during disasters.
The people who sat in their seats at the back of the train seemed to have relatively survived.
Pictures distributed by UDN on Facebook and filmed outside the tunnel show at least two undamaged cars and rescue workers helping passengers get out.
One woman testified: “I had the impression that there was a sudden, violent shock and I fell.”
And to add: “We broke the window onto the train deck to get out.”
The train, which carried 480 passengers and consisted of eight cars, connected Taipei with the town of Taitung, located in the southeast of the island.
The accident occurred on the first day of the annual grave-cleaning festival, which is a long public weekend when roads and railways in Taiwan are usually crowded.
Multiple tunnels and bridges
During this period, residents generally return to their home village to clean the graves of their loved ones and make offerings.
The East Railroad in Taiwan is a popular tourist attraction located along the coast, which is a beautiful area.
Borrowing many tunnels and bridges, it meanders through majestic mountains and very deep valleys before descending into the Huadong Valley.
Friday’s accident was one of Taiwan’s worst rail disasters in decades.
The last major derailment in Taiwan dates back to 2018, killing 18 people in the far south of the same line and injuring more than 200 of the 366 passengers.
The driver of the eight-car train was charged with negligent homicide.
The accident was the worst since 1991 when 30 passengers were killed and 112 injured after two trains collided in Miaoli.
30 people were also killed in 1981, when a truck collided with a passenger train at the Sui crossing, causing cars to fly over a bridge in Hsinchu.