DONGSHAN TOWNSHIP, Taiwan — One of Taiwan’s fastest passenger trains derailed Sunday on a curve along a popular weekend route, killing at least 18 people and injuring more than 170 others, authorities said.
The Puyuma express was carrying more than 360 passengers from a suburb of Taipei in the north to Taitung, a city on Taiwan’s southeast coast, when it went off the tracks shortly before 5 p.m., the government said in a statement.
There was no immediate word on the cause of the accident.
Most of the deaths were in the first car, and it was unclear whether other people were trapped in the train, according to a government spokesman, who spoke on the customary condition of anonymity.
Some passengers were crushed to death, Ministry of National Defense spokesman Chen Chung-chi said.
“Their train car turned over. They were crushed, so they died right away,” Chen said.
Earlier, the government put the death toll as high as 22, but the National Fire Agency, citing the Cabinet spokesman’s office, later reduced that figure and blamed a miscalculation.
Photos from the scene just south of the city of Luodong showed the train’s cars in a zig-zag formation near the tracks. Five cars were turned on their sides.
Local television reports said passengers tried to escape through windows and that bystanders gathered to help them before rescuers arrived.
Hours after the accident, one of the eight cars was seen tipped over at about a 75-degree angle, with the entire right side destroyed.
Fearing people may be trapped beneath the car, firefighters with lights on their hard hats peered underneath as a crane prepared to upend it. The firefighters were joined by soldiers and Buddhist charity workers who gathered on both sides of the tracks.
Soldiers removed bodies to identify them, but nightfall complicated the rescue work.
On a live feed provided by Taiwan’s United Daily News, rescuers could be seen carrying what appeared to be a body wrapped in white plastic away from the site.
At the scene, searchers walked through an upright car with flashlights. The search-and-rescue work was to continue until early Monday to make sure everyone aboard was accounted for, Premier William Lai told reporters shortly after midnight.
“The underlying cause should be investigated to the maximum extent to avoid anything like this happening in the future,” Lai said. “We will make the whole thing transparent.”
Ensuring that rail traffic goes back to normal is also a priority, he said.
Most people who were seriously hurt suffered head injuries and one was bleeding internally, said Lin Chih-min, deputy director of Luodong Boai Hospital, where four people were in intensive care. The hospital had treated 65 people total.
The wreck happened at a railway station called Hsin Ma, but the train was not scheduled to stop there.
The Puyuma was launched in 2013 to handle the rugged topography of Taiwan’s east coast. It is distinct from the high-speed rail that runs on the west coast. The Puyuma trains travel up to 150 kilometers (93 miles) per hour, faster than any other in Taiwan except for the high-speed rail.
The train that derailed had its most recent inspection and major maintenance work in 2017, Taiwan Railways Administration Director Lu Chie-shen said at a televised news conference.
Sunday’s derailment was at least the third deadly rail accident in Taiwan since 2003.
A popular tourist train overturned in the southern mountains in April 2011 after a large tree fell into its path. Five Chinese visitors were killed.
A train undertaking a test run ignored a stop sign and crashed into another train in northeastern Taiwan in June 2007. Five people were killed and 16 others hurt.
And in March 2003, a train derailed near a popular mountain resort, killing 17 people and hurting more than 100 people. Investigators blamed brake failure.