At least 51 people have been killed and more than 100 injured after a packed express train collided with a truck and derailed in a tunnel in eastern Taiwan, according to authorities, in the worst train crash on the island in at least 40 years.
The eight-carriage train, on its way from Taipei to Taitung, came off the tracks at 9:28am (01:28 GMT) on Friday in a tunnel north of Hualien, according to the Taiwan Railways Administration. The service was so busy that some people were forced to stand and were thrown through the air as it derailed.
Images from the scene showed carriages in the tunnel ripped apart by the impact, with others crumpled, hindering rescuers in their efforts to reach passengers. By mid-afternoon, however, no one was still trapped.
“People just fell all over each other, on top of one another,” a woman who survived the crash told domestic television. “It was terrifying. There were whole families there.”
At the site, Transport Minister Lin Chia-lung told reporters the train had been carrying about 490 people, higher than an earlier figure of 350 provided by fire authorities.
Journalist Katherine Wei, reporting from Taipei, said the wounded were being rushed to hospitals after being rescued following a tough process to enter the tunnel of the accident.
“It was difficult for ambulances and firefighters to reach the site of the crash, because there are only two main highways reaching Hualien from bigger cities such as Taipei and New Taipei city.”
The official Central News Agency (CNA) said the truck was suspected to have slid off the sloping road into the path of the train, as its handbrake had not been engaged, and added that police had taken in its driver for questioning.
According to the government’s disaster relief centre, the truck slid about 20 metres (65 feet) down a hillside onto the train line.
The fire department showed a picture of what appeared to be the wreckage of the truck beside the derailed train, with an aerial image of one end of the train still on the track next to the construction site.
President Tsai Ing-wen visited an emergency response centre in Taipei, and said investigators would get to the bottom of how such a deadly crash could have occurred.
“We will definitely clarify the cause of the incident that has caused major casualties,” she told reporters.
“I hope the deceased can rest in peace and the wounded can recover soon.”
A French national was among those killed while two Japanese people and one Macau resident were injured.
One passenger, with the family name of Wu, told CNA he recalled the accident as a bang. When he woke up, the train had stopped and passengers were using their mobile phones to find their way around. He said the car in which he was travelling was badly damaged, but that people managed to escape into the tunnel after about an hour. Another passenger told the agency that she had used her luggage to smash the train window and escape.
Friday marks the start of tomb-sweeping day, known as Qingming, and the beginning of a long holiday weekend in Taiwan when thousands of people usually travel across the island to clean the graves of their ancestors and use their free time to visit popular tourist sites like Taroko National Park.
Hualien is a popular scenic town next to eastern Taiwan’s famed Taroko Gorge, and Taiwan’s eastern railway line, which opened in 1978, is a popular tourist draw because of its dramatic coastline and scenery.
Taiwan’s last major railway accident was in 2018, when a passenger train in eastern Taiwan’s Yilan county derailed, leaving 18 people dead.
In 1991, 30 were killed in Miaoli county when two trains collided. More than 100 people were injured.
Construction on the island’s railway network first began in the late 19th century and accelerated during Japanese colonial rule.
SOURCE: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES