'I tried to help her out, but the debris was too heavy': Taiwan train accident survivors mourn the dead, seek answers

Remote video URL

HUALIEN - "Yun-ru, Mama is here to take you home!" cried out a middle-aged woman as she stood at a nondescript construction site on a mountainside in Taiwan's Hualien county on Saturday (April 3).

She was holding a colourful cardboard tablet with her daughter's name written on it and was supported by her son - the young man also sobbing and holding on to her tightly.

Ms Hsiao Yun-ru's mother and brother were calling for the 22-year-old's soul to return, a day after she perished in a train wreck.

The construction site sits above a cove where the mountains dip inland, facing a single train track leading into a tunnel littered with twisted train carriages. This was the site of the deadly train crash on Friday (April 2) morning that claimed at least 51 lives and injured nearly 200 others.

Around 200 men and women were carrying tablets and bamboo sticks adorned with white cloth bearing the names of the deceased. They huddled under black umbrellas - a common sight at Taiwanese funerals - crying the names of the killed passengers to summon their souls home - a traditional Taoist funeral ritual.

As it began to rain, strips of white cloth fluttered in the breeze. Taoist priests rang bells and chanted prayers amid the heartrending cries.

A woman collapsed. Volunteers rushed to rouse her.

One calm voice rang out: "Hurry up, come on and head home with us! So next time, we can travel here together again!"

The unhurried voice belonged to a man in a green jersey, sporting bandages on one cheek and leaning on a cane. He was still wearing green hospital slippers.

He was the father of six-year-old Yang Chi-chen, whose older sister is still in the intensive care unit due to a cracked skull and brain trauma. Mr Yang had planned a trip down Taiwan's east coast with his two daughters to spend the long Qing Ming Festival holiday together, but the train crash upended his life.

Paramedics recalled Mr Yang's plea to hold his lifeless daughter one more time when she was finally freed from the train's wreckage on Friday.

"It really was like a nightmare for Mr Yang, he was rescued first but kept asking for his children," said Dr Lin Shinn-zong, the superintendent of Hualien Tzu Chi Hospital, where most of the severely injured are being treated.

Mr Yang, the father of six-year-old Yang Chi-chen who died in the train crash. PHOTO: REUTERS
Remote video URL

Ms Chang Ya-wen, a nurse at Tzu Chi Hospital, was on duty in the emergency room when a call from the Hualien county government notified the staff of arriving ambulances.

"It helped that we have colour-coded vests for an emergency like this one, so all staff know where patients with varying degrees of trauma are being treated," said Ms Chang. "But it still got scary at one point, when five ambulances drove up at once."

This long weekend was meant for families to reunite and visit their kin's graves to pay respect, but this holiday will now be especially heartbreaking for Ms Chung Hui-mei for years to come.

A volunteer comforts Chung Hui-mei (second from the right) whose husband and two children died in the Taroko Express train crash. ST PHOTO: KATHERINE WEI
Remote video URL

Travelling home to Taitung for their annual tomb-sweeping trip, Ms Chung, her husband and two children had boarded the 408 Taroko Express only because they missed their original train.

Because the train was already full, they could only purchase standing tickets. Nevertheless, Ms Chung found her family three empty seats in the first carriage, which the children declined.

Just before entering the tunnel, Ms Chung told reporters, she heard the train operator honk many times and then everyone was thrown forward in a violent lurch.

She managed to stand up and went to check on her husband, whose face was "bloodied and mangled". Neither he nor her son responded to her, but her daughter, who was pinned beneath debris and seats, called out weakly.

Families of passengers who died in a deadly train crash visit the site of the accident to perform Taoist rituals in Hualien, Taiwan. ST PHOTO: KATHERINE WEI
Families of passengers who died in a deadly train crash visit the site of the accident to perform Taoist rituals in Hualien, Taiwan. ST PHOTO: KATHERINE WEI

"I tried to help her out, but the debris was too heavy and others under there said I was hurting them with my efforts," Ms Chung said, her eyes red and swollen.

It wasn't until near midnight on Friday when she was allowed to identify her children and husband at the funeral home, and on Saturday, her entire extended family arrived at her side to gaze at her loved ones' faces before they were zipped up again.

As the investigation into the crash continues, family members wait impatiently for a team of 120 artists to make their loved ones look like their old selves again.

The deadly train crash claimed at least 51 lives and injured nearly 200 others. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Families of train crash victims wait in a tent outside the funeral home in Hualien after identifying their loved ones in the morgue. ST PHOTO: KATHERINE WEI

Late Friday night, mortuary makeup artist Chen Hsiu-chiang, 40, began working his magic on a young woman who had died in the accident.

"It took me some five hours to complete my work on her," Mr Chen said. Leading a team of 120 artists working in shifts, Mr Chen said it took them over 12 hours to finish restoring 10 bodies, due to the amount of trauma the accident left on the dead.

While the families wait, what now?

Sitting limply in her wheelchair, Ms Chung now demands answers to her loss.

"I want the Transportation Ministry to get to the bottom of this," she said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.