Taiwan mourns after deadliest train disaster in decades

HUALIEN, Taiwan: Salvage teams began removing mangled train carriages on Saturday (Apr 3) after Taiwan’s worst rail disaster in decades killed at least 50 people, as flags flew half-mast across an island plunged into mourning.

Officials said Friday’s devastating collision was caused when a parked railway maintenance vehicle slipped down an embankment and onto the tracks.

A train packed with as many as 500 people at the start of a long holiday weekend then hit the truck just as it entered a narrow tunnel near the eastern coastal city of Hualien.

Prosecutors said they are seeking an arrest warrant for the truck driver.

READ: Taiwan prosecutors seek arrest warrant for suspect in deadly train crash

Pictures released by rescuers showed the front of the train had been pulverised into a twisted mesh of metal inside the tunnel. Specialist teams spent hours extracting bodies and survivors, pulling them along the roof of the stricken train to get them into the open.

On Saturday, the rescue operation began removing carriages now blocking one half of the sole train line down Taiwan’s remote and mountainous eastern coastline.

Specialist teams spent hours extracting bodies and survivors from the crashed train

Specialist teams spent hours extracting bodies and survivors from the crashed train AFP/Sam Yeh

An AFP reporter at the scene said the most heavily damaged carriages inside the tunnel had yet to be extracted.

The Interior Ministry ordered all flags to be lowered to half-mast for three days while President Tsai Ing-wen was expected to visit the wounded in Hualien’s hospitals later in the day.

READ: Taiwan train was full when it crashed, passengers standing and thrown about: Reports

“REALLY DEVASTATING”

Friday morning’s crash took place at the start of the Tomb Sweeping Festival, a four-day public holiday when many Taiwanese return to villages to tidy the graves of their ancestors.

More than 140 people were rushed to hospital. A French national was among the dead.

Survivors gave terrifying testimony of their ordeal inside the train after the crash.

Many of those on board were standing in the aisles because the route was so busy with those leaving the capital Taipei and heading to their home villages.

“I saw bodies and body parts all over the place, it’s really devastating,” a man surnamed Lo told the Apple Daily newspaper. “Their lives are gone all of a sudden.”

At least 50 people were killed in Taiwan's worst rail disaster in decades

At least 50 people were killed in Taiwan’s worst rail disaster in decades. (Photo: AFP/Sam Yeh)

Morgues in Hualien operated through the night preparing bodies for devastated family members.

Officials have warned that the death toll could rise because some body parts have yet to be properly identified.

Investigators are focusing on how the maintenance truck could have slipped onto the tracks. The driver, who has been questioned by prosecutors, was part of a team that conducts regular landslide checks on the mountainous route.

Officials said they think he may have failed to properly engage the parking brake.

Apple Daily reported that prosecutors had also raided the offices of the company contracted to do the trackside maintenance work.

READ: Taiwan train crash kills dozens in deadliest rail tragedy in decades

Taiwan’s eastern railway line is a popular tourist draw down its less populated eastern coastline.

With the help of multiple tunnels and bridges, it winds its way through towering mountains and dramatic gorges before entering the picturesque Huadong Valley.

Friday’s crash took place near two of the most famous landmarks on the eastern shoreline – the Tarako Gorge and dramatic Qingshui Cliffs. A world-class bullet train system also serves the heavily populated western side of the island.

Friday’s crash looks set to be one of Taiwan’s worst railway accidents on record.

The last major train derailment in Taiwan was in 2018 that left 18 people dead on the same eastern line. That crash was the island’s worst since 1991, when 30 passengers were killed and 112 injured after two trains collided in Miaoli.

Other major crashes that killed dozens have taken place in 1981, 1978 and 1961. Taiwan’s most deadly rail disaster on record was in 1948 when a train caught fire and 64 people perished.

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