"The tragedy in Taiwan has brought some observations eerily unfamiliar to Filipinos. "
On the morning of Friday, April 2, the Taroko Express train was about to enter the Qingshui Tunnel in Hualien, the picturesque seaside county on the eastern seaboard of Taiwan.
Suddenly, it was confronted by a crane truck that had slipped down from a roadside construction area above the tracks, just about a minute before. It was too late for the train driver to step on the brakes, not expecting an obstruction blocking the normally unimpeded path. As a result, 49 people died and more than 200 others were injured, some quite seriously and are still recuperating, as we write, in hospitals.
The train driver and his assistant, as well as a young train conductor, were among the instant fatalities. All of Taiwan were shocked, dampening the mood over family reunions that normally transpire during the annual Tomb Sweeping Day on April 5. It was a long weekend, and like Filipinos for their Undas, families go to their hometowns to unite with kin.
The Minister of Transportation, Lin Chia-lung, until 2018 the mayor of prosperous Taichung in central Taiwan, immediately mobilized ministry staff and other government agencies to try to save as many lives as possible, while extricating the dead and wounded inside coaches where no heavy equipment could enter the narrow tunnel. It was a difficult operation, which saw the entire island in anguish.
Massive donations from ordinary folk poured in through convenience stores, to assist the victims and their grief-stricken families. The President of Taiwan, along with her cabinet and other officials, donated a month’s salary, while she herself consoled the injured in hospitals and ordered flags flown half-mast.
Last Friday, two weeks after the worst train disaster to hit Taiwan in some 70 years, the driver of the crane truck, Lee Yi-hsiang, was charged by the district prosecutor with negligence causing deaths. Also indicted with Lee was a 26 year-old Vietnamese migrant worker, Hoa Van Hao.
The two were working on a slope stabilization project next to the train track when the truck accidentally slid down a slope and got stuck among the bushes. Lee used a strap to tie the truck to an excavator, then tried to use the excavator to pull the truck up, but the strap broke and the truck came rolling down just about a minute before the Taroko Express came rushing towards the Qingshui Tunnel. (I have taken this train twice before, once to visit the Taroko Gorge to do some hiking, and another to visit, along with other diplomats here, the many indigenous tribes whose language, customs and even native clothing are similar to those of the Ivatans and Ifugaos in Northern Luzon).
What made it worse for Lee was that after the accident, he was even seen at the site looking down with no intention of helping in the rescue efforts. He was also indicted for escaping from the accident scene.
Two weeks after, the case has been filed, and continuing investigations are being made to determine others who could be culpable, including management of the construction company.
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Meanwhile, the families of the 49 people who died in the Hualien train accident could each receive NT$ 15 million or more than half a million US dollars (more than 25 million pesos)from a total of NT$ 1.05 billion collected from donations within the same two-week period. This was announced by Health and Welfare Minister Chen Shih-chung.
Aside from the apportioned donations, roughly NT$ 120 million will go to a trust fund to cover the education costs of injured students as well as the young children of the parents who died in the accident, until the kids finish a college degree.
Each injured passenger will receive an amount ranging from NT$ 100,000 to $7 million depending on the extent of injuries, while all other passengers were given NT S 10,000 each to account for their psychological trauma.
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Days after the accident, Transportation Minister Lin tendered his resignation, but was asked by Premier Su Tseng-chang (head of cabinet similar to our Executive Secretary) to finish the rescue job and present a train safety reform plan to stave off future such incidents, while praising his sense of accountability.
On Tuesday, April 13, Su and Lin met, with the tracks having been cleared of the ill-fated train, deaths and injuries all accounted for, and a reform plan for the Taiwan Railways Administration drafted. Minister Lin pressed his resignation to take political responsibility, and the following day, Premier Su briefed President Tsai Ing-wen about Lin’s resignation. On Friday, April 16, the resignation was accepted, and the government is looking for a worthy successor to Lin.
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The two-week episode, as tragic as it was, has brought some observations eerily unfamiliar to Filipinos.
The quick investigation and prosecution is admirable. The outpouring of donations from high and low citizens was overwhelming. The quick roll-out of the donated funds was efficient and done in utmost transparency.
Above all, the sense of accountability, of taking political responsibility for a misfortune not of one’s own direct culpability, is something to be emulated.
What a difference the waters of the Balintang Channel could make between our two countries in terms of the effectiveness of governance and the moral ascendancy of officialdom.
As of Sunday, there have been 1,057 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Taiwan, including 11 deaths while 24 people are currently receiving treatment in hospitals. Taiwan has 23.5 million people, with an expatriate population of some 700,000 more, 157,000 of whom are Filipinos. There has been virtually no community transmission of the coronavirus infection, and almost all the reported cases are imported, more than a hundred of these from our kababayans.
Back home, the latest official DOH report came up with 926,052 total cases, of which 15,810 have died (72 of these last Saturday) and there are 203,710 active cases of which 11,101 were confirmed added on the same day.
Of course we have 107 million Filipinos, a bit more than four times what Taiwan, whose land area is just one-ninth of our collective territory, not to include the Spratlys and the Julian Felipe Reef.
But 926,052 versus 1,057 is a yawning gap. And so are 11 deaths versus 15,810, and counting faster by the day.
No Philippine official has resigned, because after all, the virus did not originate in our country, but from our “friendly” neighbor, China.
Accountability and delicadeza, versus the lack of it. A tale of two countries.