Taiwan’s transport minister accepts responsibility for train crash as questions mount

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Taiwan’s transport minister said on Sunday he would not shirk his responsibility for a deadly train crash even as his resignation offer was rejected amid growing questions over safety lapses that could have contributed to the disaster.

In the island’s worst rail accident in seven decades, 51 people have been confirmed dead after a packed express train slammed into a truck near the eastern city of Hualien on Friday, causing it to derail and the front part to crumple.

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Speaking at the crash site overlooking the ocean and backed by precipitous mountains, Lin Chia-lung said he would “not avoid” responsibility.

“I am also in charge of minimizing the damage caused by the entire accident. After the whole rescue work is completed, I believe I will take the responsibility,” he said.

Premier Su Tseng-chang’s office said Lin had made a verbal offer to resign on Saturday, but Su rejected it for the time being, saying efforts for now should focus on rescue and recovery.

The truck that the train hit had slid down a sloping road onto the track just outside a tunnel. Officials are investigating the manager of the construction site, Lee Yi-hsiang, whose truck is suspected of not having its brakes properly applied.

Lee had been released on bail, though the high court’s Hualien branch on Sunday rescinded that decision after the prosecutors appealed it, sending the case back to the lower court. Lee and his lawyer have declined to answer reporters’ questions.

Reuters was not immediately able to locate contact details for Lee or his lawyer.

The transport ministry, and the rail administration which comes under it, are facing scrutiny over a number of questions, including why there was no proper fencing at the site and whether too many standing-only tickets were sold.

Taiwan's Premier Su Tseng-chang visits the site of a train crash north of Hualien, Taiwan April 2, 2021, in this still image taken from video. (Reuters)
Taiwan's Premier Su Tseng-chang visits the site of a train crash north of Hualien, Taiwan April 2, 2021, in this still image taken from video. (Reuters)

Deputy transport minister Wang Kwo-tsai said late on Saturday the railway administration needed to take hard look at all these issues, adding that his personal feeling was that “initially it looks like negligence” on the part of the building site contractor.

The railway administration is also without a permanent director after its former chief retired in January. The position is being filled in an acting capacity by another deputy transport minister, Chi Wen-chung.

Wang said Lin was working hard to find the right person to fill the job.

‘Daughter’s voice became quieter and quieter’

The uncle of the youngest confirmed victim, a five-year-old girl, tearfully told reporters he was still waiting for an apology for the accident.

“I’m so angry,” he said.

The government has promised compensation and that it will do everything it can to help survivors and their relatives.

The damaged section of the track will not reopen until April 20 at the earliest, Wang said, though rail traffic continues on a parallel track that runs through another tunnel and was not affected by the accident.

Minister Lin said rescue and recovery work would continue.

“We continue to pull out the cabins stuck inside. The third cabin was dragged out last night. We expect to pull out two other cabins today,” he added.

The accident occurred at the start of a long weekend for the traditional Tomb Sweeping Day, when people return home to tend to family graves.

Survivors have described horrible scenes inside the wreck.

Priest Sung Chih-chiang told Reuters what surviving passenger Chung Hui-mei had told him.

“She could not find her daughter. When she yelled, she found her daughter was under the steel panels. She put her effort to move those pieces one by one, but her daughter’s voice became quieter and quieter, and then there was no response,” he said.

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