"Death can indeed occur when one least expects it."
As we write this article this Easter Sunday, all of Taiwan is in mourning over the tragedy that struck the Taroko Express train in the morning of Good Friday, with 51 confirmed dead, the worst train accident in at least four decades of Taiwan’s history.
Some 41 of the 186 injured are still in the hospital, fighting for their lives. The train driver and his assistant, as well as two train conductors, perished, along with a French national and two American citizens. Four bodies have yet to be identified.
The ill-fated train of government-run Taiwan Railways Administration set off from Shulin station in New Taipei City at 7:16 Friday morning bound for Taitung in the southeastern tip of the island, with 488 passengers and four crew. Just about when it was to enter a tunnel in mountainous Hualien, a crane truck that slid down the hill from a construction area less than fifteen minutes earlier blocked the train’s path, too late for the driver to step on the brakes. The smash-up happened at 9:28 a.m. Earlier, at 9:13 a.m., another train sped past the same spot with no incident.
Death can indeed occur when one least expects it.
It happened, quite ironically, on the long weekend of the Tomb Sweeping holiday, which falls today. The day is similar to our Undas, where families re-unite to clean the tombs of their forebears and bond together to remember their dead.
Some of those who rode the ill-fated train were actually going on holiday, as Eastern Taiwan is a very scenic area, with plenty of beaches side by side with beautiful cliffs and the amazing Taroko Gorge, a major tourist attraction. I have taken trains along the same railway line twice before: One to visit the awe-inspiring gorge and trek some of its less challenging mountain sides; and the other, along with other resident representatives and ambassadors, to visit the many indigenous peoples clustered in different villages in Hualien and Taitung and learn about the culture and traditions of the island’s indigenous Austronesian race.
Unlike the more industrially developed western side of Taiwan facing the South China Sea, the sparsely populated Hualien and Taitung counties face the mighty Pacific Ocean, from whence the Portuguese first settled when they colonized what they called Ilha Formosa. The tall mountains and river beds of Hualien are a major source of quarry material as well as granite and marble, while the slopes of Taitung are a major agricultural producer of fruits and vegetables, including the exceptionally big and incomparably sweet giant sher-ja or our atis, as big as a newborn baby’s head.
Flags are now flown at half mast all over Taiwan, and its president was in the hospital yesterday to comfort the injured and extend assistance to the families of victims.
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Meanwhile back home, we are terrified by the surging numbers of our coronavirus-infected kababayans. Where last year we were appalled at a few thousands being added to the victims, now we are seeing tens of thousands reported each day in this on-going and seemingly unending tragedy. It’s been a year and three weeks since government imposed a series of lockdowns, the world’s longest and most stringent, and yet, there seems to be no end to the suffering, both in terms of lives lost, bodies and minds affected in hospitals and elsewhere, and livelihoods shattered.
Those of us who mercifully did not experience the ravages of the Pacific War unlike our forebears have never experienced a tragedy as worse and as encompassing as this coronavirus pandemic.
Our health workers are on the verge of giving up, after more than a year of sleepless nights and overworked bodies, let alone the stress that comes with trying to save, albeit many times with futility, the lives of compatriots. As we keep praising them for their efforts, we take note of the reality that they too are as human, and can only take too much sacrifice.
Our hospital capacity is almost full, such that we read and hear about tragic stories of people dying without being attended to, waiting in line, in tents or corridors, for medical attention. Meanwhile, the poor who have lost jobs and livelihood are at their wit’s end trying to survive on a day-to-day basis, awaiting hand-outs from a government whose resources are as well near depletion.
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Still, we see bright spots among our local government leaders, especially in the national capital region, who tirelessly work day and night, marshalling resources and instituting systems to assist not only the testing and tracing, but now that they have in small doses arrived, the roll-out of life-saving preventive vaccines.
As a Manila resident, I am gratified that I was able to register myself online in a few minutes here in Taiwan, thanks to the innovative system introduced by our hard-working Yorme. It was truly a cinch, and after I posted the first photograph in my cellphone album, which had me in sunglasses at some tourist spot in New Zealand, my last foreign trip, I was advised by the app administrator that I was already listed as a potential recipient, and I may want to change my picture for easier identification.
I likewise saw those who received vaccines posting their “passport” and was pleasantly surprised that in my Manila, we would be given a computerized plastic passport complete with a readable QR code that we can use anywhere. Some friends from nearby cities showed me cellphone shots of their hand-written paper “passport” attesting to the date of their jab and the health care worker who administered the shot to their arms. I wonder how those paper certificates would last inside their wallets even for a few months given our muggy and humid climate.
Where did the less fortunate paper certification holders get theirs? You guessed right, in national government-owned and run hospitals. For shame.