Taiwan‘s president pushed for a swift investigation on Monday after an express train derailed on a coastal tourist route, killing 18 people as it sent sleeping passengers flying.
The crash on the popular east coastline injured another 187 people Sunday and left the Puyuma Express lying zig-zagged across the tracks in the island’s worst rail accident in a quarter century.
Video footage of the aftermath of the crash, broadcast on local Taiwan television, showed passengers smashing a window from inside and kicking it through to escape.
Tung Xiao-ling, 43, sobbed as she told the Reuters news agency how she lost eight of 17 family members – aged nine to 67 – who were returning from her sister’s wedding celebrations.
“No one can accept that one day you are a bride and the next day you are mourning a family member,” said Tung, who was not on board the train when it crashed. “I hope they find out what happened as soon as possible.”
Local resident Huang Chang-han, 61, told the AFP news agency he had been at a nearby hillside temple with a group of people who rushed to help.
“There was a big bang, and black smoke, the scene was horrible, beyond words,” he said. “We rushed to the scene to help carry the kids and elderly people. There was blood all over.”
All eight carriages derailed and five had flipped onto their side.
Among those who died, the youngest was nine years old. Two students aged 12 and 13 from a junior high school in Taitung – where the train was headed – were also killed, according to the transport ministry.
“Everyone is concerned about the cause of the incident and I’ve asked prosecutors to clarify the situation … and the cause soon,” President Tsai Ing-wen told reporters as she visited the scene.
A task force and forensic units will determine whether the derailment was “an accident or human error” prosecutor Chiang Jen-yu said as investigators combed through the wreckage for evidence.
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 many passengers were sleeping at the time.
An official from the Taiwan Railways Administration said the train driver reported a pressure device used for braking had malfunctioned 30 minutes before the accident, but that it should not have caused the train to go too fast.
Officials said the search for victims had ended at the accident site in the northeastern county of Yilan and no more passengers had been found in the carriages.
“At this difficult time, let us all pray for the injured and hope the deceased can rest in peace,” said President Tsai.
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.