Cover image by AFP

Fire ripped through a bus carrying tourists from China’s mainland in Taiwan yesterday, killing all 26 people on board. The bus had been taking the tour group to the airport for the flight home when it burst into flames and crashed into a highway guard rail.

Taoyuan fire chief Lai Chi-chong said all the victims died inside the bus. “There was not enough time for them to escape,” he told reporters.

Video from the scene showed both bus doors pressed up against the guard rail, making it impossible for them to be opened.

Many of the bodies were badly charred, some of them piled in front of the unopened emergency exit.

Thirteen firefighting vehicles and 30 firefighters were sent to the scene, but the fire had spread rapidly. By the time the flames were extinguished, the vehicle was heavily blackened from one end to the other.

Media footage showed flames shooting from the front of the bus. The images showed thick plumes of black smoke and burned-out wreckage.

A police spokesman said the bus had caught fire before it crashed into the guard rail but gave no further information.

“All the people on the bus died,” Lin Kuan-cheng, spokesman for the island’s fire agency, confirmed to AFP. “At this stage it is still not clear why no passengers escaped from the bus.”

The Liberty Times newspaper quoted an unnamed eyewitness as saying passengers could be seen pounding on the bus windows for help as the driver swerved sharply before the crash.

A firefighter at the scene said there were no survivors calling for help when they arrived.

Bodies were being retrieved from the vehicle last night after police and prosecutors had examined the site, according to an AFP photographer.

The tour group of 24 people — three children, 15 women and six men — had been organized by the Liaoning Overseas Travel Service Company.

A Taiwan driver and Taiwan tour guide also died in the accident, the island’s fire agency said.

The tourism bureau in Dalian, in northeast China’s Liaoning Province, said 21 of the victims were from the city, while the other three came from Heilongjiang, Jilin and Hunan provinces.

The Liaoning tourism bureau said it had set up a team to investigate the incident and it was trying to verify the names of all the people who had registered for the tour.

The company is licensed to organize tours in Taiwan, a bureau official said.

The group was on its way to Taipei’s main Taoyuan airport for a 4:30pm flight back to Dalian after an eight-day tour of the island when the accident happened shortly before 1pm.

It was the worst accident involving mainland tourists since holidays on Taiwan island became increasingly popular.

A tourism boom was fostered by the establishing of cordial relations between the two sides under former Taiwan leader Ma Ying-jeou, who came to power in 2008 and left office in May.

However, there are fears the industry could suffer after Beijing-skeptic Tsai Ing-wen won the leadership in January, amid reports that tourist numbers have dropped.

The mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office said it had launched “emergency response measures,” and would send a team to the island to help handle the aftermath.

“We are highly concerned about the safety of our mainland compatriots,” said spokesman Ma Xiaoguang, quoted by Xinhua news agency.

The accident was the latest in a series of incidents that have called into question Taiwan’s safety record.

Several recent fatal accidents on the island have led to safety investigations.

In February 2015, a TransAsia plane crashed into a river in Taipei, killing 43 people on board — including 28 tourists from the mainland. Investigators found that the pilot had shut down the wrong engine after the other one had failed.

The airline was instructed to overhaul safety procedures and training.

In June 2015, colored corn starch sprayed over crowds at a water park party near Taipei ignited due to the heat of stage lights, killing 15 people and injuring more than 500 others — many of them young people who sustained horrific burns.

The organizer of the event was jailed for negligence.

The collapse of a residential block during an earthquake in the southern city of Tainan in February this year, which left 115 people dead, led to an investigation which showed that builders had cut corners.

The previous worst road accident in which Chinese tourists were killed was in 2010 when a tour bus was hit by a landslide following a typhoon on a coastal road in the east of the island, leaving 20 people dead.