YILAN, TAIWAN (REUTERS, AFP) - Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen offered words of consolation on Monday (Oct 22) as she met relatives of the 18 dead and 187 injured after a train derailed in the island’s north-east, the worst rail disaster in more than three decades.
Officials said four carriages overturned on Sunday after all eight cars of a train carrying 366 passengers left the tracks on a bend near a railway station in Yilan county, about 40km from Taipei, the capital.
Ms Tsai joined Buddhist monks in prayer before an altar adorned with flowers next to a county hospital, while nearby, relatives and friends of the victims wept as they sifted through battered suitcases recovered from the train wreck.
“We are really sorry... you have to stay strong,” Ms Tsai told Chen Yu-chan, 41, whose only daughter, a seventh grader, was killed.
“We will do everything we can,” she told another person, who was sobbing bitterly during her visit to the hospital.
Health authorities appealed for blood donations to help treat the many injured people, who included one foreigner, an American.
Six of the dead were below 18, officials said.
The disaster was Taiwan’s deadliest rail tragedy since a 1981 collision in the northern region that killed 30 people, the official Central News Agency said.
China’s policymaking Taiwan Affairs Office expressed “deep condolences” to the families of victims.
Train services resumed early on Monday, after all the derailed carriages had been moved to one side of the tracks.
Authorities said they were investigating to determine the cause of the accident, which remains unclear.
Many of the casualties happened in a carriage at the front of the train, said one official, adding that the driver, surnamed You, has been moved out of intensive care, though his condition was still unstable.
“We will ask him what happened after he stabilises,” said Mr Liu Can-huang, head of the car maintenance unit of the railways.
The train recorder, which tracks speed, among other data, has been sent to prosecutors to be examined, he added.
The derailment was not expected to cause a major disruption to economic activity, however.
Ms Tung Xiao-ling, 43, sobbed as she told Reuters how she had lost eight of 17 family members, aged nine to 67, as they returned from celebrating her sister’s wedding.
“No one can accept that one day you are a bride and the next day you are mourning a family member,” said Ms Tung, who was not on board the derailed train.
“I hope they find out what happened as soon as possible. We trusted the safety of Puyuma,” she said, referring to the express train line.
The fastest of Taiwan’s regular trains, the Puyuma Express began operating in 2013 to negotiate the rough terrain of the east coast.
Hundreds of rescuers and military personnel worked through the night, using spotlights to search the wreckage for survivors, as ambulances waited to take the injured to hospital.
Some rescue workers gave first aid to the injured, while others used cranes to lift some of the battered cars sprawled in a zigzag near the tracks.
“This is something that is not supposed to happen when taking a train,” said Mr Chen Tai-liang, whose niece, a seventh grader, was killed.
“Why did it happen?” he asked, after speaking to Ms Tsai.
Passengers who survived the accident recalled how the train had been shaking intensely during the journey and was going "very fast" before it derailed.
"The train stopped twice and we were told that there were problems that needed repair, but the train restarted not long after," one passenger who identified herself as Mrs Chiu told reporters.
"We felt that the speed was too fast, then there was a crashing sound and we flew off (from the seats)," she said, adding that many passengers were sleeping at the time.
The crash was the worst rail accident in Taiwan since 1991, when 30 passengers were killed and 112 injured after two trains collided in Miaoli in western Taiwan.