It was the night before Eidul Azha and it was raining cats and dogs in Karachi. Power was out in the stretch around Falak Naz Centre near the airport on Shahrae Faisal, as often happens in many parts of the city when it rains. At around 3am, in the pitch darkness, 29-year-old Syed Haider Ali Shah was woken up by knocks on the door of his sixth-floor apartment. It was the building’s chowkidar, telling him water was flooding into the basement parking, endangering the sacrificial animals kept there.
There were 12 cows and 15 goats belonging to various residents tied in the basement. Worried, Haider woke up his cousin and his friends from apartments two floors below to help him, and headed downstairs. Another friend from the building across also joined them. The roads were flooded, with knee-high water on the road around their apartment block. In the pouring rain, while he was still contemplating what to do about the animals in the basement, he saw a white mini-SUV float across the flooded road, climb on to the traffic island and ram into a tree. Then the car just sat there, its headlights on, its engine running.
Haider and his friends thought the driver must be drunk. One of them began to record the events on his mobile phone.
A heroic real-life drama when five young men managed to save the lives of three people on a rainy night in Karachi
When no one emerged from the car, he and his friends tentatively approached the car, wading through the water to get to it. They were shocked to discover an elderly couple slumped in the back and the driver slumped in the front seat.
Despite calling out repeatedly to them, and the young men banging on the doors and windows, not one of the people inside stirred.
Seventy-one-year-old Mohsin Siddiqui and his 68-year-old wife Tabassum had landed in Karachi from a trip abroad at 2:30am. Mr Siddiqui, who works in the energy sector, had asked their driver Rafaqat Ali to pick them up from the airport, having dissuaded his brother’s granddaughter Zara from driving out to receive them in the middle of the night.
As they started out from the airport and turned on to Sharae Faisal, Mr Siddiqui says, it was coming down in sheets and he was alarmed to see water accumulated on the road almost coming up to his windows. He noticed also that water was seeping into the fairly new car. He told Rafaqat to gun the accelerator, otherwise the car would stall on the flooded road. That was the last thing Mr Siddiqui remembers. His head then slumped back and he fell unconscious.
Mrs Siddiqui, meanwhile, saw a man pushing his broken-down motorbike through the water with a child on it ahead of their car and told Rafaqat to watch out for them. That was the last she remembers. She too suddenly slumped on to the seat next to her husband.
A few moments later, Rafaqat too fell on his side, his foot still likely on the accelerator. The car kept moving until it climbed a traffic island, its right tyre burst and a tree blocked its onward movement.
Haider, his friends — Amir, Arshad and Zain — and Haider’s cousin Waqar were not sure what to make of the scene before them. In the darkness, and with bucketfuls of rain falling, they weren’t sure if the occupants of the still-running car were dead or what had happened to them. They tried opening the doors but they were locked from inside. They kept calling out ‘Uncle! Uncle!’ but nobody responded.
Someone suggested breaking the windows. But with the water lapping around their knees they couldn’t even find a stone to break the glass with. Then Haider remembered that a nearby repair shop used to put out its refrigerators on bricks. He ran to the shop, got a small brick from there and smashed a small triangular window in the back of the car. They still couldn’t reach the lock, so they then went and smashed a front window, which finally allowed them to access the central lock; they opened the doors and then shut off the car’s engine. The three occupants of the car seemed still to be breathing so the young men threw water on their faces. But while the driver and the lady showed some response, the elderly gentleman showed no movement whatsoever. The situation was fast turning dire.
This is when the second miracle for the car’s occupants — the first being the boys finding them — occurred. At this precise moment an Aman Foundation ambulance was coincidentally passing by. The boys stopped the ambulance and begged the driver to take the elderly gentleman to the hospital. The fully-equipped ambulance had oxygen supply and finding Mr Siddiqui’s blood oxygen levels very low, he was administered oxygen by the paramedic as he was rushed off to the Aga Khan (AKU) Hospital.
Once the ambulance departed, the young men realised that the driver and the lady were not in great shape either.
At this moment, a third miracle occurred.
Occupants of a double-cabin jeep passing by through the flooded road saw the commotion on the side of it, stopped and reversed back to ask if they could offer help. The young men bundled the driver and the lady into the back of the jeep and told the jeep’s occupants to rush them to AKU as well.
While they were pulling the car’s occupants out, the young men had found Mr and Mrs Siddiqui’s mobile phones on the flooded floor and backseat of the car. But since they were locked, they couldn’t access any contacts from them. However, they were able to open the driver’s simpler phone and decided to call the last number from the call log. It turned out to be Mr Siddiqui’s grand-niece Zara’s number, who had been waiting to hear of the couple’s arrival. Haider told her what had happened and that she should get to AKU.
While Zara rushed with her sister to the hospital, the young men left behind with the Siddiquis’ car and all its belongings — including the Siddiqui’s luggage, passports, etc — pushed the car to near their building, removed all the things from the car with the smashed windows and locked them up in one of their own cars. Every single thing was handed over with the car later to the Siddiquis’ relatives.
It took 12 hours for Mr and Mrs Siddiqui and their driver Rafaqat to gain consciousness after constant medical care at the hospital. According to the hospital diagnosis, they were all suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning and, doctors say, had they not received medical care for another 10-15 minutes, it is likely they would have died. Mr Siddiqui’s blood oxygen levels were already down to 80 percent when he was put in the ambulance — below 85 percent is considered severe hypoxia — and had they fallen to 70 percent he would have probably slipped into a coma.
It is not clear what exactly caused the carbon monoxide poisoning but it is very likely that the exhaust of the car — unable to escape from the flooded exhaust pipes — circled back into the engine and entered the car through the airconditioning vents. It has also been speculated that the water that seeped into the car from the flooded roads outside contained sewage that emitted methane gas.
Whatever the cause, there is little doubt that the Siddiquis and their driver surviving is nothing short of a miracle. Had any of these elements — the young men coming across the crashed car immediately, their decision to take quick action, the coincidental appearance of a fully-equipped ambulance and then the similar arrival of a jeep that could plough through the flooded roads — not been available, this incident would have ended in tragedy.
Narrating the traumatic incident, Mohsin Siddiqui conveys a newfound respect for life and for the young men who saved them. “They were like angels for us,” he says repeatedly out of awe and admiration. “They were gifts from God. I told them later I wanted to give them something as appreciation but they refused, and told us to just remember them in our prayers.”
Speaking to Eos, Haider was entirely humble about his and his friends’ role. “It was God’s wish that they be saved,” he says. “We were just His agents, I guess.”
“It is so inspiring that we have such young men in Pakistan, they are like role models,” says Mr Siddiqui. “You know we always talk about the bad things — for example, two days later my sister-in-law was mugged on Tariq Road when she had gone there for shopping — and we never tire of repeating those stories. But then there are young men like these, and they need to be celebrated and talked about too.”
With additional reporting by Shazia Hasan
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 29th, 2019