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Charity, People

Frontline Rescuer Captures Moments of Courage during Rescue Mission

A volunteer rescuer cum professional photographer captured the heart-warming moments of the rescue mission inside the tunnel in the aftermath of the No. 408 Taroko Express incident.



Cai Wen-zhe hopes to bring warmth to people by capturing images of hopeful sights at the scene of the tragedy.

After the accident of No. 408 Taroko Express that happened on 2 April, a photo of a doctor hugging and soothing a child in the aftermath of the incident has touched many. The photo was taken by a volunteer rescuer. A photographer by profession, the volunteer rescuer had captured the moments of this group of first-line rescue team in action. Cai Zhe-wen said that there were many casualties at the site of the accident and it was a heart-wrenching sight for everyone. However, he hoped that his photos can bring hope to people, one which has warmth in it.    

Cai Zhe-wen joined the Red Cross since high school to learn first aid. When he was still studying in the University, there was an occasion where he wanted to assist during a road accident, but the firefighters said that they could handle it. Cai witnessed the rescue action and found that they could handle the work independently and professionally, so he applied for the license issued by the fire department. In 2009, Cai became the team leader of the volunteer rescue team of Ji’an Branch under Hualien County Fire Department. When there are no photography assignments, he would be on duty at the fire brigade. If he was called for an ad hoc duty, he would promptly notify the shop owner that he has to reschedule the photo shooting session and complete the rescue mission first. On the day of the reporter's visit, Cai had just finished his photo shooting and saw a car accident on his way back where he stopped by to deal with the injuries.


Besides carrying out rescue work, Cai also takes photos of the rescue mission.  


Cai Zhe-wen 

On 2 April, the day of the tragic No.408 Taroko Express accident, Cai was supposed to do a photo shooting. However, when he saw the breaking news at 9 o'clock and felt uneasy about what he saw, he immediately turned on the radio and learned that he needed to be dispatched immediately. He also swiftly rescheduled the photo-shooting date with the owner of the shop which he was supposed to go for a photo shooting session. Bringing along with him the rescue equipment, he arrived at the site of the accident past 10pm.

Cai discovered two injured victims, Mrs. Lei and her child at the scene upon arrival. After assessing her condition, Cai was sure that Mrs. Lei had a fracture. However, he could only place Mrs. Lei on a stretcher while waiting for the ambulance to arrive. During the wait, he saw Dr. Wu soothing the child and captured the heart-moving photo below.


Photo taken by Cai on 2 April after the railway accident. Dr Wu Kun-chi was seen holding and soothing a child. 

The child’s father, Mr. Lei, said that his wife was doing well after the operation and she was about to be discharged from the hospital. What followed would be a long period of rehabilitation. Mr. Lei was very grateful to Dr. Wu Kun-chi from Tzu Chi Hospital for calling to express his concern and he also expressed his gratitude to Cai and the rest of the search and rescue team for rescuing his wife and child. Mr. Lei hopes to bring more positivity to the family members of other victims so that everyone could brave through the tragedy together. He also intends to keep a record of these processes and hopes that his child would grow up to be a grateful person by remembering that many people had helped him in a life threatening situation when he was little. Mr. Lei also aspires for his son to give back to the society and help others when he has the ability to do so.  

Cai was greatly relieved after learning that Mrs. Lei was about to be discharged from the hospital. However, he could still feel the weight in his heart when he recalled the scenes at the site of the accident.  


Hualien County Fire Department Special Search and Rescue Team which is fully involved in this rescue mission was set up in 2018. 

Seeing so many casualties for the first time

The Hualien County Fire Department’s Special Search and Rescue Team was established in January 2018. One month later, the Hualien Earthquake occurred on 6 February. The team was also involved in the rescue mission in the collapse of Nan’ao Bridge incident followed by the No. 408 Taroko Express railway accident. Compared to previous rescue missions, they see a lot more victims in this railway accident, and most of the casualties are young people and small children, which made this group of search and rescue personnel felt particularly heavy at heart.

From the date of the accident which happened on 2 April until the last victim was sent off on 5 April, the Head of Hualien County Special Search and Rescue Team, Jian Hong-cheng devoted himself in leading the team into the site of the accident. Jian said that when he first entered the tunnel, there was a mixture of gas in the air inside the tunnel and the surrounding was terrible. However, he adjusted his mindset immediately and entered the coach. The moment they got into the coach, the first thing they saw was the body of a child. However, they had to first rescue those who are injured, which put them in dilemma. Without a choice, they had to cover the child’s dead body with something and rescue those who are still alive in the shortest time possible. Jian said that many of the victims this time were children, some are of the same age as the children of some rescuers, which made the team members felt terribly bad.  

The youngest victim in this accident was only 4 years old, which is a very heavy sight for Cai who has a 3-year-old child. Cai recalled, “When I arrived at the accident site, I looked down the slope to roughly assess the condition of the coach outside the tunnel. I did not feel that bad at first. After reporting myself for duty, I started evacuating people, and apply first aid and bandage those who are wounded. As evacuation of victims was still in progress, rescue team members could only find ways to climb into the coach safely from the side of the coach.”  


The special search and rescue team had to cut open the coach and climb in from the side and find ways to carry out the rescue mission safely. 

"There was a huge contrast between the entrance and inside of the tunnel. As soon as I stepped into the tunnel, I saw a lot of dead bodies and smelled blood and gasoline. I was very shocked at that moment." However, Cai knew that he needed to rescue those who survived the accident first, and hence, he began searching for survivors. He shared, “The sight of so many dead bodies in front of me was like the scenes we see in movies." The air quality in the tunnel was bad and he was in great pressure to complete the evacuation mission. At the beginning, he had to adjust himself every half an hour, make a record and only proceed when he was ready.   

Cai then moved forward with the rest of the special search and rescue team. He shared that the casualties he dealt with in previous accidents were mostly adults, it was tough for the team to accept the passing away of small children in such a way. It was a tormenting sight for the rescue team, but they could only keep on searching and rescuing survivors. “This is what we have to endure because if we can’t move forward, no one else could. We were in so much sadness and pain but the only thing we had to do was to find the survivors first.”


The most heart wrenching part of the rescue mission is to see so many casualties who are young people and small children in this tragic incident. 

Receiving a call from family at the 8th coach

Halfway through the mission, Cai received a call from his family to notify him that his niece was in the 8th coach while another friend’s brother was in the same train. At that moment, Cai was out of words to describe what he saw in the 8th coach.

Cai shared that there were still survivors in the victims he rescued at the beginning, after a while, most of those he found were casualties. There weren’t much that they could do for the deceased and that had inflicted a great sense of helplessness in them. The only thing the team wished to do was to get the dead bodies out of the accident site and not let them remain in that space. Cai said, “Some people said that it was hell inside. To me, it was hell on earth. They (the victims had entered a spot where they shouldn’t have entered, the sight will haunt them for life.”

Cai said with a choke, “You all (the casualties) were just travelling during a long break and yet you encountered an accident like this. From the perspective of the search and rescue team, these casualties shouldn’t be here, especially when there are so many small children and young people. You all must be very sad being in here, I will get you guys out immediately.” Cai also said that these victims had taught them a lesson, and what everyone can do is to keep working hard and prevent such tragedy from happening again.


Rescuers are evacuating the injured followed by the deceased inside the tunnel.  

Humanity shines through the darkness

This is a depressing tragedy, however, the most heart-warming and spiritually lifting sights in Taiwan were seen during the search and rescue process. For the front line rescuers, the support from their family was their strongest pillar.

Cai said, “It was very difficult to enter the coach at first, it took team work to get us in. There were many passengers in the coaches, including some male passengers with minor injuries who helped us in. This is our choice, although the mission was greatly pressurising, we could only try our best to adjust our mind. I believe that we had done our best to save them.”

Cai is grateful for the support from his wife who works as a nurse. Each time during a rescue mission, his wife would allow him to focus on his work without feeling any worries. For example, during the Hualien earthquake that occurred on 6 February, their house was not severely damaged, however, for safety, the whole family sought shelter at the stadium. His wife looked after their three children and that enabled him to complete his task with peace of mind.

On 2 April when the railway accident happened, one of the volunteer rescuers was supposed to bring his daughter to Yilan for a trip. However, upon receiving the emergency call, he immediately rushed to the accident site in Hualien, and asked his daughter to wait at Tzu Chi’s service station. The obedient daughter also helped to serve the railway passengers while they were waiting for the tour buses transport them from the accident site.

Members of the public and non-governmental organisations had also took the initiative to provide aid materials. The head of the special search team, Jian said that the temperature was low when they first came out from the rescue site between 4am to 5am. Coincidentally, the vehicle containing aid materials was driven away at that time. Fortunately, they were given porridge by Tzu Chi volunteers and that warmed their body and soul.  The weather was hot during the rescue mission and many rescuers were almost dehydrated inside the tunnel. It was difficult for them to eat anything at the accident site. And so, Jian was grateful to Tzu Chi for providing large ice buckets with ice cubes in it so that they could drink some cold and cooling drinks.


The first Tze-Chiang Express train that is entering the tunnel after the accident is here to transport the injured and the casualties. 

Seeing light at the end of the tunnel

Due to his participation in this rescue mission, Cai witnessed the efforts of many firefighters in searching and rescuing the victims. Without compromising his search and rescue task, Cai snapped images of the rescue mission with the hope of sharing the sights of hard work by the rescue team. Cai said, “I hope my photos can bring some warmth to everyone.” 

Having snapped the first Tze-Chiang Express train that arrived at the tunnel to transport the injured victims and casualties of the accident, Cai said, “That train is like a hope that can lead the wounded and the casualties out of this tragic site. I hope my photos can bring some warmth and hope to people.”


To Cai, the arrival of the Tze-Chiang Express train represents hope. 

Cai feels the piercing pain each time he is interviewed regarding the incident. However, the handing over of a note to Cai by a young lady sitting next to him during one interview session made him feel fully supported.

Cai wrote on his social media account, “Rest in peace, we will not retreat. We will continue to do our best to bring hope to all. When people are fleeing for their lives, we will keep on progressing because we want the public to find hope and feel safe when they see us coming.”


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