The woman emerged from the wreckage of Taiwan’s worst rail disaster in decades, a scarf tied around her head and blood staining her shirt. “I found myself on the ground. My head was bleeding,” she said. “Someone helped me to wrap it, we broke the window, climbed to the top of the train and got out. There was no space in the tunnel so we had to climb to the top first.”

At about 9.30am local time on Friday the 408 Taroko Express was travelling along the windy east coast line around and through the dramatic mountains and cliffs of Hualien County, reportedly carrying as many as 500 people. Crowded with travellers for the start of the four-day religious Qingming festival, it is likely people were standing in the aisles when the train derailed inside a tunnel, partially flipping and crushing against the walls.

By Friday afternoon at least 51 people had been confirmed dead and more than 150 were injured. The Central News Agency (CNA) reported that a six-year-old girl was among the dead.

“The train suddenly stopped and it started shaking, then the collision happened,” one young man told local news. Another passenger told CNA he heard a loud noise and then fell unconscious. When he woke it was dark and people were using their phones to light the carriage. “I could not bear to look. Many people were lying down,” he said.

The unnamed woman with the scarf had been in carriage eight, where authorities said a large proportion of the fatalities were found. She and her husband had been heading to Taitung, a few hours south, to visit and sweep the graves of ancestors to mark the Qingming festival, when families gather to pay respect to the dead.

Rescuers help passengers down from the roof of the train
Rescuers help passengers down from the roof of the train. Photograph: Facebook @hualienfastnews/Reuters

An investigation has been ordered into the cause of the crash, but police said their initial assessment was that a construction vehicle was not parked properly on a road that overhung the rail line. It rolled down the embankment, collecting at least one of the back carriages of the train, authorities said.

Cars four to eight bore the brunt of the destruction. Photos and footage showed a mess of twisted metal inside the tunnel. An upturned yellow truck, believed to be the maintenance vehicle, leaned wrecked against the side of the hill.

The driver was not in the construction vehicle at the time it hit the train, and has been taken to a police station for questioning.

Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, said emergency services had been “fully mobilised” to rescue and assist passengers and staff, and she had ordered hospitals to prepare for a mass casualty event. “We will continue to do everything we can to ensure their safety in the wake of this heartbreaking incident,” she said.

Hundreds of emergency and military personnel, vehicles and aircraft were dispatched to the scene to free people stuck in the wreckage and to ferry survivors to hospital.

Footage showed passengers who had crawled from carriages emerging from the tunnel by walking along the train roof, carrying their luggage. One passenger told CNA that a train conductor had evacuated people from their carriage.

A passenger is helped down from the train roof
A passenger is helped down from the train roof. Photograph: Facebook @hualienfastnews/Reuters

The uninjured walked themselves out along the track, but at least 70 people were trapped for several hours. Several passengers reported having to break windows to get to the roof of the train to escape. The final two survivors were freed just before 4pm.

The injured were taken to six hospitals for assessment and treatment. Two died. Tzu Chi hospital said it received 30 patients with minor injuries, mostly lacerations.

The 408 is one of the fastest services on Taiwan’s regular train network, reaching speeds of up to 130km/h (80mph). It runs along the popular east coast region, including through the mountains and gorges near Taroko national park, via tunnels and bridges.

Friday’s crash was Taiwan’s worst rail disaster in decades. In 2018, 18 people died and 175 were injured when a train derailed in Yilan, about 60 miles (100km) north of Friday’s crash site. That crash was blamed on driver negligence. A 1991 collision between two trains killed 30 and injured 200, and a 1981 collision in northern Taiwan killed 30 people.

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