Taiwan mourns after deadliest train disaster in decades

Taipei, Taiwan: Grieving relatives of those who died in Taiwan's worst rail disaster in decades held prayers at the crash site on Saturday as salvage crews worked to remove the tangled mass of wrecked carriages.

Officials said Friday's devastating collision, which killed at least 51 people and injured nearly 190, 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.

The truck driver -- who railway officials said may have failed to secure the parking brake properly -- has been released on bail after being interrogated by prosecutors and is barred from leaving Taiwan pending further investigation.

Around one hundred relatives held an emotional Taoist prayer ceremony near the crash site on Saturday afternoon, shaded under a canopy of black umbrellas.

Many wept openly as they surveyed the scene, some holding makeshift shrines inscribed with the names of those who died.

Some called out the names of their loved ones as other family members held them tight.

Rescuers described an appalling scene as they rushed into the tunnel and found the front of the train pulverized into a twisted mesh of metal.

"Car number eight had the most serious injuries and a number of deaths," rescue worker Chang Zi-chen told reporters on Saturday, referring to the most forward passenger car.

"Basically more than half of the carriage was split open and bodies were all piled up together."

Specialist teams spent hours extracting victims and survivors on Friday.

On Saturday, the focus shifted to removing carriages now blocking one half of the sole train line down Taiwan's remote and mountainous eastern coastline.

Two giant cranes were being used to move the carriages and rescuers said further bodies might still be found inside the most damaged cars inside the tunnel.

'Really devastating'

The Interior Ministry ordered all flags to be lowered to half-mast for three days while President Tsai Ing-wen visited the wounded in Hualien's hospitals.

"Government agencies are making an all-out effort in the hope of minimizing the impact of the disaster so the deceased can rest in peace and the injured can recover soon," she told reporters.

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

A French and two American nationals were among the foreigners killed, authorities said. The youngest victim was 4-years-old.

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.

"Humans are fragile and their lives are gone all of a sudden."

Investigators are focusing on how the maintenance truck could have slipped onto the tracks.

The driver was part of a team that conducts regular landslide checks on the mountainous route.

Officials said 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.

Tourist draw

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 and left 18 people dead on the same eastern line.

That crash was the island's worst since 1991 when 30 passengers were killed.

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.

Survivors recount horror and loss

Survivors of Taiwan's worst rail crash in decades have recounted their desperate efforts to find loved ones in the twisted wreckage of the train at what should have been the start of a holiday weekend.

As many passengers were heading to their hometowns to tidy the graves of their ancestors at the start of the annual four-day Tomb Sweeping Festival, instead, fresh graves are now being prepared for their loved ones.

Chung Hui-mei was the sole survivor of a family of four.

Because the train was so full, she found a seat away from her family and was not next to them at the time of the crash, she said.

She recalled her horror at coming across the lifeless bodies of her husband and son as she tried in vain to get to her daughter.

"I tried to find them, my husband was sitting at the front of the eighth carriage," she told the Liberty Times newspaper at a mortuary in Hualien, bandages covering wounds on her forehead and an arm.

Chung said she called out for her daughter and heard her reply just once. But after that, silence.

Officials said nearly 500 people were on the train -- 372 seated and a further 120 standing in the aisles.

'Horn sounded'

Chung said the train did not seem to reduce speed before the crash.

"The conductor started honking early and he knew there was some situation ahead but he didn't slow down," she said. "He was driving fast until the train hit the tunnel."

The train conductor and two other railway staff were among those killed, according to authorities.

The youngest victim listed so far was six years old.

Speaking from a wheelchair in hospital, a woman surnamed Yang told Era TV she and her husband were standing in the area connecting two carriages when the train derailed.

"I didn't come to the hospital right away because my husband died at the scene," she said.

She recalled being thrust forward by the force of the crash and said she believed her husband cushioned the impact for her.

"I felt dazed at the time," she said. "I grabbed hold of him but he passed away."

Others gave harrowing testimony of making their way out of the train, half of which was lodged inside the narrow tunnel.

"I saw bodies and body parts all over the place. It's really devastating," a man surnamed Lo told the Apple Daily newspaper.

"I had to climb over several bodies to get out of the carriage through a crack of the door. I was scared to death," another unidentified woman told Apple.

Pictures showed survivors using mobile phone lights to make their way along the side of the blacked-out train. Others walked along the roof.

Rescuers also used metal cutters to get to some carriages.

The back half of the train appeared undamaged and many in that section walked away unscathed.

Officials have warned that the official death toll could rise because some body parts have yet to be properly identified. Some victims may also still be inside the wreckage.

Chang Zi-chen, a member of Hualien Search and Rescue, told reporters the front carriage had been virtually split in half.

"Our personnel couldn't get rescue equipment to them because of the difficult access," he said.

"We could only send in medical supplies to help the patients' survival chances."

Worst rail disasters of the last decade

With dozens dead after a packed train derailed inside a tunnel in Taiwan, we look back on some of the worst rail disasters of the last 10 years:

Pakistan pilgrims

At least 74 people died and more than 40 were injured on October 31, 2019, when a fire broke out on an overcrowded passenger train in Punjab carrying pilgrims to a religious gathering near Lahore.

The blaze is thought to have been started by gas canisters exploding as passengers prepared a meal on board.

India: Crowds on tracks

A speeding train ran over revelers watching fireworks during a Hindu festival in northern India on October 19, 2018, killing about 60 people.

Eyewitnesses said the crowd had gathered on the tracks in the city of Amritsar to watch a fireworks display marking the Dussehra festival.

Alexandria crash

Two trains collided on the Cairo-Alexandria mainline on August 11, 2017, killing 41 people and injuring scores more. One train is thought to have broken down when the other one slammed into it.

Iran collision

Two trains collided and one caught fire in the northern province of Semnan on November 25, 2016, killing 44 people and injuring dozens more, in one of Iran's worst ever rail disasters. The crash was put down to human error.

Indian express disaster

At least 146 people died when an Indore-Patna Express train derailed in Uttar Pradesh on November 20, 2016, sending carriages crashing into each other.

Around 2,000 people were believed to have been on board when the accident happened at the peak of India's marriage season.

Speeding Cameroon train

A train traveling from the capital Yaounde to the economic hub of Douala derailed on October 21, 2016, killing at least 79 people and injuring around 550 others. It was traveling "abnormally" fast before the crash, the investigation into the crash concluded.

Congo carnage

A goods train to carry hundreds of illegal passengers flew off the rails in a swampy and inaccessible part of the south of the Democratic Republic of Congo on April 22, 2014, killing at least 136 people. Many had to be buried in mass graves nearby.

Spain derailing

Some 80 people were killed and another 144 injured when a high-speed train slammed into a concrete wall on the outskirts of Santiago de Compostela on July 24, 2013. The train had been approaching a curve at more than twice the speed limit and the driver is charged with negligent homicide.

Canada inferno

A runaway train carrying millions of liters of crude oil started a deadly inferno when it crashed in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic.

The blaze burned for two days leaving 47 people dead.

The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train had been parked overnight at a nearby town when it slipped away. The disaster appeared to have been caused a failure to properly set the hand brakes.

Egypt school children

Forty-seven school children were killed when a train smashed into their bus in central Egypt on November 17, 2012, after a railway signal operator fell asleep.

Argentina

In one of the country's worst-ever rail accidents, 51 people were killed and more than 700 injured when a packed commuter train slammed into barriers at a railway terminus in Buenos Aires on February 22, 2015.

The accident highlighted the poor condition of Argentina's railways, which were privatized in the 1990s.

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