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 from their seats.
The crash on the popular east coast line injured another 187 people Sunday and left the Puyuma Express lying zig-zagged across the tracks in the island’s worst rail accident for a quarter century.
Among the victims were three students and two teachers from a junior high school in Taitung – where the train was headed.
“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 of the accident Monday.
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.
One passenger who identified herself as Mrs Chiu told reporters the train had stopped twice and there had been an announcement that it needed repairs, but it had then restarted.
“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.
An official from the Taiwan Railways Administration said the train driver had 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.
The railways administration confirmed that a Puyuma Express train also derailed last year on the same line, but no one was injured.
In total, Taiwan has a fleet of 19 Puyuma Express trains, all made in Japan.
The health ministry said Monday that 53 remained in hospital, 10 of them in intensive care.
Jerry Wang, the father of a surviving student from the school party, told AFP the group had been returning from an exchange trip to South Korea.
He said his 14-year-old son Wang Yu-fei had suffered injuries to his stomach, kidneys, and pelvis, all due to massive frontal impact.
The student’s grandparents said he was now off life support, but remained in intensive care.
“I was begging God to give him back to me,” said Wang.
Officials said Monday that the search for victims had ended at the accident site in the northeastern county of Yilan and that no more passengers had been found in the carriages.
Cranes have lifted the mangled Puyuma Express coaches away from the southbound track. All eight carriages derailed and five had flipped onto their side.
Train services have partially resumed, using the northbound track.
Local resident Huang Chang-han, 61, told AFP he had been at a nearby hillside temple when he heard the train crash and saw black smoke.
“We rushed to the scene to help carry the kids and elderly people. There was blood all over, everyone was busy helping people,” he said.
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.
“At this difficult time let us all pray for the injured and hope the deceased can rest in peace,” said President Tsai Monday.
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.