Truck driver makes tearful apology over Taiwan rail crash

Taipei (AFP) –


A railway maintenance worker whose truck rolled onto the tracks and sparked Taiwan's worst train disaster in recent decades made a tearful apology on Sunday, saying he would cooperate with investigators.

At least 50 people were killed and more than 200 were injured in Friday's crash, which sent a packed eight-car train hurtling into the sides of a narrow tunnel near the eastern coastal city of Hualien.

Investigators say the Taroko Express hit a truck on the line moments before it entered the tunnel.

The vehicle slipped down a steep embankment and prosecutors are working on whether the driver either failed to secure the parking brake, or the brake suffered a mechanical failure.

On Sunday, the driver Lee Yi-hsiang read out an emotional statement to a bank of media cameras.

"I am deeply remorseful and want to express my most sincere apologies," he said, his voice cracking with emotion.

"I will cooperate with the investigation by police and prosecutors to take the responsibility I should take," he added.

Lee, 49, was part of a team who regularly inspected Taiwan's mountainous eastern train line for landslides and other risks.

He was questioned over the weekend by prosecutors and released on bail by a court pending further enquires.

As questions mounted over how packed the train was and why there were not fences on that section of the track, transport minister Lin Chia-lung offered his resignation on Sunday.

But it was not accepted by the government who said he should remain in place until the results of the investigation are known.

- Emotional prayers -

Survivors reported that the train driver was honking his horn shortly before the crash but did not -- or was unable to -- slow down before striking the truck.

The United Daily News newspaper ran a report on Sunday based on initial analysis from footage of the train recorder that showed the truck was on the line before the train went into the tunnel and no slowdown before impact.

The crash has plunged Taiwan into mourning. Some suvivors lost entire families and the youngest victim was just four.

A French national and two Americans were also confirmed killed.

On Saturday around one hundred relatives held an emotional Taoist prayer ceremony near the crash site.

Shaded under a canopy of black umbrellas they wept openly, calling for their loved ones to "come home".

Friday's crash took place at the start of the Tomb Sweeping Festival, a four-day public holiday when many Taiwanese return to villages to tidy the graves of their ancestors.

Taiwan's eastern railway line, a popular tourist draw, winds its way through towering mountains and dramatic gorges before entering the picturesque Huadong Valley.

The last major train derailment in Taiwan was in 2018 and left 18 people dead on the same eastern line.

Taiwan's most deadly rail disaster on record was in 1948 when a train caught fire and 64 people perished.