The runaway truck that caused Taiwan’s worst rail disaster in decades slid onto the train tracks just over a minute before an express train came through at more than 120km/h, investigators have said, as newly released footage revealed the drivers’ attempts to brake.
At least 50 people were killed and around 200 injured on Friday last week when the eight-car train hit a construction vehicle that had rolled down an embankment, derailing the carriages as they entered a stretch of tunnel just outside the east coast city of Hualien.
“There was a little over one minute between when the truck slid to the track and the Taroko Express hit it, according to our initial estimate,” the chair of Taiwan’s Transportation Safety Board, Dr Young Hong-tsu, said on Tuesday.
As he showed a short clip of the train’s dashcam footage rounding the corner and colliding with the truck, Young said the driver and assistant – both of whom died in the crash – had tried to brake but had just seconds to react. “He tried his best in the hope of avoiding a disaster,” he said.
Young said the train would have needed about 500-600 metres to come to a complete stop, but had less than half that. The train was traveling at about 125km/h but slowed only to 121km/h before impact, the Taipei Times reported.
After derailing, the front carriages were crushed and mangled against the tunnel walls, killing dozens and trapping some passengers for hours. As recovery crews continued efforts to clear wreckage from the tunnel, investigators have focused on a construction vehicle that was parked on a maintenance road above the track before rolling down the hill side. The truck driver, 49-year-old Lee Yi-hsiang, has been detained, and prosecutors are seeking to determine if he failed to apply the handbrake or if there was a mechanical failure. On Sunday, Lee made a tearful apology, telling media: “I am deeply remorseful and want to express my most sincere apologies.”
“I will cooperate with the investigation by police and prosecutors to take the responsibility I should take.”
Li Gang, convenor of the board’s investigations division, said investigators had determined the construction vehicle had arrived onsite at 8.49am, and other vehicles including motorcycles and excavators were also operating, despite rail authorities saying it had told all contractors to stop work for the long weekend.
The crash was the deadliest rail incident in decades, and has devastated the people of Taiwan. Among the dead are entire families, children as young as five, and people who died trying to protect loved ones from the impact of the crash. As of Tuesday night, all but one victim had been identified. There were still 35 people in hospital, including several in intensive care.
The packed train, carrying nearly 500 people, including more than 120 standing in the aisles, was travelling south on the first day of a four-day religious festival. Funerals for the victims began earlier this week, and the government has announced various forms of financial and social support to families and survivors. Public donations have reportedly exceeded more than US$2.1m, and the government has announced an oversight committee to ensure appropriate distribution.