• 3,000 to 3,500 vehicles still stuck
• Hilly town declared calamity-hit area
• Army called in for rescue operation
• PM speaks of ‘rush of people proceeding without checking weather conditions’
RAWALPINDI: The army and the district administration launched a massive operation to rescue stranded tourists in and around Murree after 22 people, including women and children, were found dead in their vehicles trapped in heavy snowfall.
To enjoy snowfall, tens of thousands of people thronged Punjab’s hill town of Murree but a large number of vehicles stranded in snow on Friday night and 22 people died. Eight of them froze to death in their cars and others probably died from asphyxiation after inhaling exhaust fumes in snow-bound vehicles.
On Saturday morning, the Punjab government declared the area in and around Murree calamity-hit area.
According to AFP, videos shared on social media showed cars packed bumper-to-bumper, with one-metre-high piles of snow on their roofs.
The website of the National Weather Forecasting Centre said heavy snowfall was expected in the area until Sunday afternoon.
“The local population is also facing severe problems,” Usman Abbasi, a stranded visitor, told AFP. “Gas cylinders have run out and drinking water is not available in most areas – it’s either frozen or the water pipes have been damaged due to severe cold.” He said hotels were running out of food, and mobile phone services were patchy.
Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed sorrow and grief over the tragedy, ordered an inquiry into the incident and asked the authorities concerned to put in place strong regulation to ensure prevention of such tragedy.
In a tweet, the prime minister said, “Shocked and upset at tragic deaths of tourists on road to Murree. Unprecedented snowfall and rush of people proceeding without checking weather conditions caught district admin unprepared. Have ordered inquiry and putting in place strong regulation to ensure prevention of such tragedies.”
Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar imposed state of emergency in hospitals, police stations, administration offices and Rescue 1122 service.
Meanwhile, Pakistan Army troops reached Murree to help with rescue work. In a statement, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said army engineers had also reached the area to help open up the main highways. The engineers had cleared Murree Expressway, it added.
“Heavy machinery from Murree, army engineers Division and FWO are working without any pause to assist people who are stuck,” the ISPR said. “Where machinery can’t reach, troops have moved and they are clearing traffic and opening roads.”
Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, in a video message, said tourists had flocked to the hill station in such large numbers for the first time in the last 15 to 20 years which created a crisis.
He said residents of Murree provided food and blankets to stranded tourists, adding that the administration had closed all routes to the hill station and was now allowing only vehicles taking food and blankets for stranded people.
Regional Police Officer Ishfaq Ahmad told Dawn that several vehicles were stranded due to continued snowfall of 7 to 8 feet on Nathiagali-Abbottabad road.
He said the tourists stuck in their cars closed the windows and switched on car heaters which possibly caused emission of carbon monoxide gas followed by suffocation. The cause of death of occupants of the cars was suffocation, the RPO opined.
The crisis in Murree and its surrounding areas is likely to continue till next couple of days.
The meteorological department recorded 32 inches’ snowfall in the hill town during the last two days. “It is not unusual snowfall in the area as in the winter, an average 64-inche snowfall is recorded in Murree,” said Irfan Virik, deputy director of meteorological department while talking to Dawn.
He said that meteorological department had issued weather advisory and warned the departments concerned.
According to rescue service, 22 people have died in the tragedy and 16 of them were found dead in four vehicles trapped in snow.
The deceased included Zahid Zahoor, 27, resident of Abbottabad; Ishfaq Younus, 31, Gujranwala; Masroof Ashraf, 31; Naveed Iqbal, 49, ASI of Islamabad police; Mrs Naveed Iqbal, 43; their five children; Sohail Khan, 27, resident of Mardan; Asad Shah, 22, Mardan; M. Bilal, 21, Mardan; Bilal Hussain, 24, Karachi: M. Shehzan, 46, Rawalpindi, his 34-year-old wife and two children. The name of other victims could not be ascertained.
Still 3,000 to 3,500 vehicles were stuck in snow, the traffic police spokesman said. “There were 33,743 vehicles in Murree on Friday when heavy rainfall started. Still 3,000 to 3,500 vehicles are stuck on the snow-covered road as rescue operation is continuing.”
A large number of tourists who are on way to Murree returned to Islamabad and Rawalpindi after entry of vehicles into the hill town was banned on Friday night.
Meanwhile, an emergency meeting was held in Lahore to review the situation. Addressing the meeting, Punjab Chief Minister Buzdar said evacuation of stranded tourists was the first priority of the government. He said snow cutters and other machinery had been sent to Murree from Rawalpindi and other cities.
The CM said rescue operation had been further accelerated to evacuate the tourists besides ensuring provision of food items and other relief items to them. The chief minister expressed sorrow over the loss of precious human lives and directed the authorities concerned to utilise all available resources for shifting the stranded tourists to safe places.
The CM said the government was in touch with the power sector authorities to ensure restoration of electricity supply to Murree. “Relief supplies are being provided to the tourists on a priority basis. Vehicles carrying food items and medicines are allowed to enter Murree.” The chief minister also directed the administration to ensure the supply of food items and medicines.
Mr Buzdar said he was personally monitoring the situation and the government was making serious efforts to complete the rescue operation before night.
National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) Chairman Lt Gen Akhtar Nawaz said in a statement the first priority was to shift the stranded people and joint efforts were being made in this regard.
“Many people have already been transferred to safe areas and with the help of district administration all the commercial places including restaurants have been directed to make arrangements to accommodate additional people” he said. “Even the locals have been asked to accommodate the stranded tourists as much possible.”
The second priority was to extend medical support to the tourists, and emergency had been declared in the government and private hospitals and the army facilities, he said.
He added that special camps had been established in the military establishments, including the Military College and the Army Public School, and in the supply depots and these camps were also providing medical care to the stranded people.
The NDMA chairman said heavy machinery had been called in from Abbotbad, Rawalpindi and even from Muzaffarabad.
“Road from Jhikagali to Gharial camp is open and the road from Jhikagali to Kuldana will be cleared by Saturday night,” he said.
He added that provision of fuel and food to the stranded people would also be ensured.
The Inspector General of National Highways and Motorway Police Inam Ghani said in a statement carbon monoxide was odorless and very hard to detect, and it could quickly cause death.
He suggested that if any car was stuck in snow and the occupants had the engine running, they should open a window slightly and clear snow from the exhaust silencer pipe.
Ahmad Fraz Khan from Lahore and Kalbe Ali from Islamabad also contributed in this report
Published in Dawn, January 9th, 2022