Taiwan train crash a “Hell on Earth:” even experienced search and rescue personnel brought to tears

The aftermath of a train crash and derailment in Hualien County was a “purgatory on earth” said an exhausted member of a search and rescue team, as as he exited the tunnel at the end of a long shift.

“I have served on many rescue missions, but this is the first time I shed tears.”

On the evening of April 2, 2021, around 9 hours after a packed-to-capacity express train travelling at more than 100 kilometers per hour smashed into a truck that had fallen onto railway tracks, the “body count” had risen to 50, but a District Prosecutor’s Office coroner on duty at the scene of the accident said, “we can’t be sure.”

It wasn’t a simple body count because there were so many pieces.

Specialist search and rescue, medical, forensics, and military logistics personnel from around the country were dispatched to the scene after the Taroko Express train derailed as a result of the crash, and crumpled into the Qingshui tunnel.

Over the next two days the death count grew to 51, but as the pieces were sewn together with the help of DNA testing and morticians, the toll was revised to 50.

All but 2 of the eight-car train carriages had been damaged in the wreck, with the first three severely mangled.

The East Coast High Speed Rail

When the Taroko Express was introduced to Taiwan’s railway system in 2006 it cut traveling time between Taipei City and Hualien City from a previous three hours to just two hours.

A tilting train based on the JR Kyushu 885 series, the train was imported from Japan and named after the landmark Taroko Gorge, a popular destination for tourists in Hualien County.

The tilting technology allowed for faster speeds on the relatively narrow 3 foot 6 inch (1,067 mm) gauge track, boosting maximum operating speeds from 110 to 130 kilometers per hour.

After electrification of the east coast line from Hualien to Taitung was completed in 2013, Taroko Express services were extended to Taitung City, cutting a previous minimum six-hour journey to just over four hours on the fastest express service.

A Cell Phone Rings in the Dark

Zhong Shiming (鍾世銘), captain of a rapid search and rescue team from New Taipei City Fire Department described the search and rescue mission as difficult.

Zhong drew a comparison with the October 21, 2018 Puyuma Express derailment in which 18 people had died, and 187 were injured.

The Puyuma accident happened in an open area with no obstructions, but this time the train carriages derailed as they were entering the tunnel and completely jammed the narrow, confined space.

Search and rescue teams worked in a confined space, some entering the tunnel from the southern entrance, two kilometers from the scene of the accident.
Search and rescue teams worked in a confined space, some entering the tunnel from the southern entrance, two kilometers from the scene of the accident.

Search and rescue personnel had to clamber over the wreckage, and squat in cramped positions between the tunnel walls and the body of the train while cutting into compartments to reach the dead and injured.

Another, younger, rescue team member, named Lee, posted on Facebook that the crew had to pass many corpses and body parts as they made their way to the lead carriages that bore the brunt of the impact.

While the screech of saws cutting into metal echoed endlessly between the walls of the tunnel, Lee heard the familiar ring tone of a cell phone laying on the floor of the mangled train.

At first he ignored it, focused on the mission of finding and helping the injured. But after the injured had been removed from the compartment, Lee looked at the still-ringing phone’s shattered screen to see the caller was “Dad,” and 18 missed calls.

“Should I answer it?” Lee asked of a senior officer.

There was no response.

Lee put himself in the caller’s shoes and thought, “If I answer it and it is not the voice he is familiar with, he will be heartbroken.”

Lee put the phone down, and prayed that it had been left behind by someone who had fled in haste.

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