Dashcam memory cards help reconstruct 98% of moments before Taiwan train crash

An aerial view shows workers checking damaged carriages at the site of a derailed train accident in Hualien, on April 6, 2021.
An aerial view shows workers checking damaged carriages at the site of a derailed train accident in Hualien, on April 6, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

TAIPEI - Investigators said on Thursday (April 8) that they were able to reconstruct 98 per cent of the moments, even seconds, leading up to the Taroko Express train crash on Taiwan's mountainous east coast.

This was based on the two memory cards from the dashboard camera of the construction truck that the train had crashed into on the railway track last Friday.

The second memory card was located on Wednesday, days after the first card and the camera were found.

The truck was said to have slipped off a worksite next to the railway track just minutes before the express train travelling at more than 120 kmh rammed into it and derailed, killing at least 50 people.

"We have obtained audio recordings at the construction site, including a key conversation that happened (after) the truck was entangled in some bushes," Taiwan Transportation Safety Board (TTSB) chairman Young Hong-tsu told lawmakers on Thursday.

Dr Young confirmed that there were two people at the construction site - the truck owner and construction manager Lee Yi-hsiang, and a Vietnamese migrant worker known as "A-hau", whom Mr Lee had hired illegally.

A-hau had been on the run from immigration officers for almost five years, police said.

Mr Lee had claimed that he went to check on the construction progress alone last Friday morning when the tragedy took place, but highway surveillance cameras showed him driving A-hau to the site in his truck, which was loaded with old tyres.

"A couple of other construction trucks followed them to the site as well," said Dr Young.

Mr Lee's truck allegedly tumbled down onto the train tracks after getting caught in the vegetation, but the TTSB is still puzzled as to how it had become loose.

Local media quoted anonymous sources as saying that the truck had fallen in the way of the 408 Taroko Express train when Mr Lee was trying to get it out of the bushes with an excavator, but the claim has not been confirmed by the authorities.

The recording which the TTSB reviewed was a discussion between Mr Lee and A-hau that lasted some 10 seconds.

According to Dr Young, the two were debating how to deal with the truck after it fell onto the train tracks, as well as the truck's condition.

Although Dr Young believed his team was able to piece together 98 per cent of what had happened at the construction site, "prosecution will be handling the remaining 2 per cent", he said.

A-hau was arrested by police on Wednesday night. Hualien prosecutors filed to detain A-hau on Thursday to prevent him from destroying relevant evidence.

Mr Lee and A-hau have been listed as co-defendants but they have not been formally charged, said Ms Chou Fang-i, chief prosecutor for the Hualien District Prosecutors Office.

The number of people subpoenaed for the investigation is growing, Ms Chou added.

The government is also waiting for the prosecution's investigation to conclude.

"If Lee Yi-hsiang caused the truck to slide onto the tracks as he was trying to pull it (up with an excavator), we'll have to ask prosecution to discuss if this is death by negligence or indirect but intentional homicide," said Deputy Transportation Minister Wang Kwo-tsai.

Meantime, memorial services for the people who perished in the packed train were held in their home towns Hualien and Taitung in eastern Taiwan on Thursday, which marked the seventh day after their deaths.

It is a time known as "First Seven" in Taoist funeral traditions. Taoists believe that the dead return to visit their loved ones on the seventh day after their death.

All trains belonging to the Taiwan Railways Administration, which operates the Taroko Express service, honked their horns for five seconds at 9.28am - the same time the train had crashed - to honour the victims and survivors.