A Taiwan court has released on bail the manager of a construction site whose truck is believed to have caused a train accident that killed at least 50 people, but prosecutors vowed to appeal.
The Taroko Express was carrying almost 500 people down the island’s east coast on Friday, the first day of a religious festival when families gather to honour their ancestors, when it crashed in a tunnel just outside Hualien city.
Prosecutors had applied to a court to detain the manager on charges of causing death by negligence, a justice ministry official said on Saturday.
But a court in Hualien released the manager, Lee Yi-hsiang, on a bond of T$500,000 (£12,600), although it restricted him from leaving Taiwan for eight months and said he had to stay in Hualien.
The court said that while the truck’s fall into the path of the train was possibly due to negligence, there was “no possibility of conspiracy”.
Yu Hsiu-duan, the head of the Hualien prosecutors’ office, said it would appeal against the decision.
“The court said there was no reason to keep him in custody,” she told reporters. “The court changed it to a surety of $T500,000.”
Lee’s court-appointed lawyer declined to comment to reporters as he left the court.
Police believe the train hit a truck which had slid down an embankment from a maintenance work site on to the tracks. The front carriages of the train derailed and piled up inside the tunnel, becoming crushed against the walls, splitting and tearing apart.
Dozens were killed, including the 33-year-old train driver and an assistant driver. Authorities also confirmed the death of a six-year-old girl, a French national and a US national. More than 70 others were trapped inside for hours, while other survivors broke windows and crawled along the train roof to escape.
The driver of the truck was not in it at the time it slid down, and police suspected it had been “parked improperly”. .
Workers on Saturday began moving the train’s rear portion, which was relatively unscathed as it had stopped outside the tunnel away from the accident spot.
However, other mangled sections remained in the tunnel, where a fire department official, Wu Liang-yun, said more bodies were likely to be found. “We’re still carrying out rescue work,” he added.
About 150 people were injured in the crash, and 48 people were pronounced dead at the scene. Two of the injured later died in hospital. On Saturday morning, 40 people remained in hospital, including four in intensive care. Two people from Japan, two from Australia and one from Macau were confirmed among those who had suffered minor injuries. Authorities said on Saturday that 496 people had been onboard, including four rail staff, 372 seated passengers and 120 standing passengers.
Authorities warned the death toll could still rise, because some body parts were yet to be properly identified. A rescuer at the crash site also said they were not sure if more bodies might still be in the wrecked carriages stuck inside the tunnel. On Saturday, the foreign ministry said a US national – accompanying the one killed – was still missing.
A Red Cross Society rescuer told local media the scene on arrival was “like a living hell”, and suggested there were a number of children among the dead.
“Chairs were mangled, objects were scattered all over the floor, and blood was everywhere,” Lin Chi-feng told CNA.
“It was heartbreaking to see so many children and infants die in the accident,” he said.
All survivors were freed from the wreckage by Friday afternoon, and salvage crews began to clear the rear carriages from the track on Saturday, but the damaged carriages remained stuck inside the tunnel. Rail authorities said it would take another week to clear the site and resume services.
Taiwan’s government ordered all flags to be lowered to half-mast for three days, to honour the victim of the worst rail disaster to strike the island in decades. President Tsai Ing-wen visited survivors in hospital on Saturday.
“This heartbreaking accident caused many injuries and deaths. I came to Hualien today to visit the injured and express my condolences to the deceased passengers’ families,” Tsai said. “We will surely help them in the aftermath.”
Tsai said on Friday that she had asked the transport safety committee to conduct a strict investigation.
The transport minister, Lin Chia-lung, said repairs would be accelerated. “When such a thing happens, I feel very sorry and I will take full responsibility,” Lin said after touring the site.