Tzu Chi Commissioner Polyn Chen, chief strategist Chang Shen-Yuan, and volunteer Ting Chang-Chuan were among the seven Tzu Chi Foundation members in the eight-car Taroko Express that derailed and crashed into a tunnel wall just outside Hualien City last April 2. Chen was unhurt, while the two sustained minor injuries. Along with other passengers, they received medical attention from Tzu-Chi Hospital in Hualien.
In what has been described as Taiwan’s worst rail disaster in more than 70 years, the accident left 50 of the 498 passengers dead and over 140 injured.
En route to Taitung from Taipei, the train was packed with passengers, many of them standing. It was the first day of a long weekend leading to the Qingming Festival, the Chinese equivalent of Christians’ All Souls’ Day. As the train entered the Qingshui Tunnel, a truck from a construction site slid downhill and fell onto the tracks. The train ran smack into the truck, causing its derailment.
“Suddenly there was a loud bang accompanied by the feeling of the car crashing into something,” recalled student Li Jie, one of the passengers on the train. “I felt like the car was rubbing vigorously onto something, the vibration becoming more violent, the sound roaring louder and louder.” When the train slowed to a stop and a cloud of smoke filled the car, Li and his companion Xu Zhaogu forced the door open with their bare hands. Li was one of the first to jump off, unaware that he was stepping on pieces of broken iron and glass with his bare feet.
Like him, some passengers, particularly those at the back of the train, were able to walk away from the site unscathed. Others, however, were trapped in the train for hours, many resorting to smashing windows to free themselves from the mangled carriages.
Tzu Chin Foundation volunteers quickly set up an aid station at the scene and offered assistance and comfort to train victims, their families, and the rescuers. In three days, 1,505 volunteers were mobilized to provide assistance in transferring the injured to hospitals, accompanying the bereaved families in identifying the casualties, providing 2,129 meals to police, soldiers, and engineering crews from the government who were on the site to clear up the debris of the accident, and helping address various needs of the passengers. Emergency responders included Tzu Chi Foundation Medical Director Dr. Lin Juin-Long, who supervised the distribution of injured passengers to different hospitals based on the gravity of their injuries.
Members also prayed as rescuers retrieved lifeless bodies from the wreckage.
“There is truly no way to describe our grief, to express our sorrow in words,” said Dharma Master Cheng Yen of the tragic event. “The best way to show our heartfelt feelings is to pray with utmost sincerity.”
She then called on Tzu Chi volunteers to “genuinely cherish our blessings and affinities always. Life is impermanent and full of suffering. Let us put ourselves in the shoes of those who were affected by this major tragedy., I hope you will give of yourselves with loving-kindness and compassion and your most sincere love.”