Two buses collided in the 12.9km Hsuehshan Tunnel in northeastern Taiwan yesterday, causing two deaths and injuring more than 20 people, two of them seriously.
The collision, which occurred at 1:27pm, caused a passenger bus to catch fire after it was rear-ended by another bus at the 26km marker on the southbound side of Freeway No. 5 in the Hsuehshan Tunnel, which links New Taipei City (新北市) and Yilan County, police said.
The Directorate-General of Highways confirmed that the collision occurred after a tire blew out on a car in front of the first bus, forcing the bus driver, employed by Kamalan Bus (葛瑪蘭客運), to stomp on the brakes, catching the driver of the following bus by surprise.
The second bus, owned by Capital Bus (首都客運), burst into flames after the collision, and the driver was killed in the fire, the agency said.
Firefighters extinguished the flames at 2:08pm, saying the injured, who mostly suffered from smoke inhalation, had been rushed to nearby hospitals.
The tunnel has been closed to traffic to facilitate rescue work, police said.
It was the most serious accident to occur in the tunnel since its opening in June 2006.
Considered a marvel of civil engineering and human perseverance, the tunnel took 15 years to complete.
National Freeway Bureau -Director-General Tseng Dar-jen (曾大仁) said one fire drill is held in the tunnel every season, with the most recent taking place on March 31 and April 1.
The drills focus on smoke and fume ventilation, and extinguishing flames, Tseng said.
Eight vehicle fires have -occurred in the tunnel. In all fires, the fire fighting team outsourced by the bureau — Shang Hung Gardening (尚宏園藝有限公司) — was able to put out the flames, Tseng said.
However, the fire from yesterday’s accident was too much for the gardening company to handle, and the bureau had to ask for help from fire stations in Yilan County and New Taipei City, Tseng said.
The Financial Supervisory Commission has directed insurance companies to help the victims and the family members of the deceased.
Miaoli-based Shang Hung -Gardening, which began -operations with less than NT$5 million (US$170,500) in paid-in capital, won a contract in 2010 to provide first-line firefighting services in the tunnel for three years.
Although the nearest the company had previously come to working on the national freeway system was the placement and maintenance of shrubs, hedges and flowers, its manager said at the time that his company was experienced enough to ensure the safety of the more than 40,000 vehicles that pass through the tunnel per day, adding that its firefighters were “very highly trained.”
Translation by Jake Chung, Staff Writer