TThe woman emerged from the rubble of Taiwan’s worst rail disaster in decades, with a handkerchief tied around her head and blood staining her shirt. “I found myself on the ground. My head was bleeding, ”he said. “Someone helped me wrap it up, we broke the window, got on top of the train and got out. There was no room in the tunnel, so we had to climb to the top first. “
At approximately 9:30 a.m. local time on Friday, the 408 Taroko Express was traveling along the windy east coast around and through the dramatic mountains and cliffs of Hualien County, reportedly carrying up to 500 people. Crowded with travelers for the start of the four-day Qingming religious festival, people were likely standing in the corridors when the train derailed inside a tunnel, partially flipping over and smashing against the walls.
By Friday afternoon, at least 50 people had been confirmed dead and more than 150 injured. The Central News Agency (CNA) reported that a six-year-old girl was among the dead.
“The train suddenly stopped and started shaking, then the collision happened,” a young man told local news. Another passenger told CNA that he heard a loud noise and then fell unconscious. When he woke up it was dark and people were using their phones to light up the carriage. “I couldn’t bear to look. A lot of people were lying down, ”he said.
The anonymous woman with the scarf had been in carriage eight, where authorities said a large proportion of the deaths were found. She and her husband were heading to Taitung, a few hours south, to visit and sweep ancestor graves to commemorate the Qingming festival, when families gather to pay tribute to the dead.
An investigation was ordered into the cause of the accident, but police said their initial assessment was that a construction vehicle was not properly parked on a road that jutted out from the railroad track. It rolled down the embankment, picking up at least one of the train’s rear cars, authorities said.
Cars four through eight were the hardest hit by the destruction. Photos and images showed a mess of twisted metal inside the tunnel. An overturned yellow truck, believed to be the maintenance vehicle, leaned against the side of the hill.
The driver was not in the construction vehicle at the time it collided with the train and was taken to a police station for questioning.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said emergency services had been “fully mobilized” to rescue and assist passengers and staff, and had ordered hospitals to prepare for a mass casualty event. “We will continue to do everything possible to ensure his safety after this heartbreaking incident,” he said.
Hundreds of military and emergency personnel, vehicles and aircraft were dispatched to the scene to free people trapped in the rubble and transport survivors to hospital.
A Red Cross rescuer told local media that the scene upon his arrival was “like a living hell” and suggested that several children and babies were among the dead.
“The chairs were smashed, the objects were scattered all over the floor and there was blood everywhere”, Lin Chi-feng told CNA.
Lin said rescuers located the survivors by hearing their screams, and only after removing everyone did they begin trying to retrieve the dead..
“It was heartbreaking to see so many children and babies die in the accident,” he said.
The images showed passengers who had crawled from the carriages exiting the tunnel walking across the roof of the train, carrying their luggage. A passenger told CNA that a train conductor had evacuated people from his car.
The uninjured walked down the road, but at least 70 people were trapped for several hours. Several passengers reported having to break windows to reach the roof of the train and escape. The last two survivors were released shortly before 4 in the afternoon.
The injured were taken to six hospitals for evaluation and treatment. Two died. Tzu Chi Hospital said it received 30 patients with minor injuries, mostly lacerations.
The 408 is one of the fastest services on Taiwan’s regular train network, reaching speeds of up to 130 km / h (80 mph). It runs along the popular East Coast region, including through the mountains and gorges near Taroko National Park, through tunnels and bridges.
Friday’s accident was Taiwan’s worst rail disaster in decades. In 2018, 18 people were killed and 175 injured when a train derailed in Yilan, about 60 miles (100 km) north of the crash site on Friday. That accident was attributed to the negligence of the driver. A 1991 collision between two trains killed 30 and injured 200, and a 1981 collision in northern Taiwan killed 30 people.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism