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MUZAFFARABAD: In a devastating accident, six people, including a couple, were killed and another six were feared dead after a footbridge over an icy water channel collapsed on Sunday in the Neelum Valley of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK).

According to officials, about 157 tourists — 70 of them students of TIPS College, Faisalabad, 64 from Sahiwal Medical College, Sahiwal, and 23 others — had arrived in the Neelum Valley on Thursday in three coasters. They were all travelling with a Lahore-based tour operator.

On Sunday, the students stopped by a picturesque site along the gushing Jagran Nullah. The emerald green water flowing through the stream can be seen best when standing over the footbridge that crosses it. Several students made their way to the bridge to take pictures.

According to the deputy commissioner of Neelum, Raja Mehmood Shahid, the students not only ignored the signposts warning them to be careful while on the bridge, but also paid no heed to the tour operator asking them to not overload the bridge.

Sixty-five people were on bridge when it disintegrated

According to sources, about 65 students made their way to the bridge as soon as they arrived, dangerously straining the load capacity of the structure.

A pedestrian who witnessed the tragedy said, “I saw them clapping, whistling and taking selfies, and suddenly the bridge started shaking. It cracked and completely disintegrated.”

He said while some people rushed towards safety — and others managed to hold on to the wooden bars of the bridge — several students fell into the gushing water and were swept away by the violent currents.

He said the local volunteers of the AJK Red Cres­cent Society were the first to launch a rescue operation rescuing several people — including a couple from Islamabad — from beneath the collapsed bridge and four others further downstream. Another seven people were recovered alive by the rescuers.

One of the survivors told reporters that he and one of his friends struggled to get hold of some rock in the stream and eventually succeeded, but others were not so fortunate.

The deputy commissioner said that the survivors were provided treatment at a local health facility and five of them — identified as Waleed, 18, Anam, 18, Iqra Mazhar, 23, Alina Farhan, 22, and Ibrar, 28, — were airlifted to Shaikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahayan (SKZN) Hospital, Muzaffarabad, by an army helicopter. They are all reported to be in stable condition.

He said five bodies were recovered — that of Abdul Rehman Saeed, 28, Hammad, 25, and Shahzeb, 31, of TIPS College, Mr Nadeem, 38, and his spouse Iffat Nadeem, 24.

He said the bodies had been dispatched to Muzaffarabad from Neelum at about 9pm after their funerals.

The body of Ms Resham — aged 22 — of Sahiwal Medical College was recovered from Nauseri and brought to SKZN Hospital, Muzaffarabad.

Those still missing include Ahmed Rashid and Moazzam of TIPS College, Amtal and Amina Kosar of Sahiwal Medical College, Ms Faiza Nouman of Trackers Club Lahore and Saim, a Neelum Valley resident.

According to a statement by the Inter Service Public Relations (ISPR), the military has been directed to extend all possible assistance to the civil administration for relief and rescue.

“Pakistan Army rescue and relief efforts [are] under way… [and] army troops along with doctors and paramedics have reached the incident site,” the statement said.

In July last year, a family from Rawalpindi was struck by a dreadful tragedy after three of its young members were swept away by the same violent stream — around the same spot.

Published in Dawn, May 14th, 2018