• At least 8,000 people, 3,000 cars evacuated from hill station
• Murree to get district status; new parking plazas to be built
• Rs17.6m assistance announced for families of victims
• Free mobile calling facility extended to those still stranded in snow-bound areas
RAWALPINDI: Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar on Sunday formed a five-member committee to investigate the causes and lapses that led to the death of at least 22 tourists who became stranded during a snowstorm in and around the hill-station of Murree.
During a visit to the affected areas on Sunday, where military and civilian agencies are continuing relief efforts, the chief minister also announced that Murree would be given the status of a district and senior officers would be posted there to ensure better administrative management and prevent something like this from happening in the future. CM Buzdar also announced financial assistance of Rs17.6 million for the families of the victims.
Meanwhile, all vehicles have been barred from entering Murree until Monday night while all main roads are said to be cleared of snow.
According to Rawalpindi Commissioner Syed Gulzar Hussain Shah, at least 8,000 people have so far been evacuated from the snow-hit areas, adding that between 3,000 and 4,000 vehicles had been evacuated from the hill station. He said the district administration had made arrangements to provide fuel to travelers so they could make their way back.
In a statement issued on Sunday, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said all main arteries of Murree have been cleared, including Kuldana-Barian Road, where most of the casualties occurred.
Relief camps and medical facilitates were operating in the area and police and army transport were helping move stranded tourists to Rawalpindi and Islamabad.
The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority has also announced free-on net calling facility for those stranded in Murree and the Galyat area without any balance.
Better facilities for Murree
During his visit to the affected area, the Punjab chief minister expressed displeasure over the overcrowding of Murree, i.e. the entry of more vehicles into the area than its maximum capacity. He made it clear that action would be taken against those responsible for this negligence in light of the inquiry report.
Mr Usman Buzdar also approved the establishment of two police stations and two new parking plazas, one in Sunny Bank and the other in Jhika Gali.
“In future over crowed of vehicles and tourists in Murree will be controlled and only specific numbers of vehicles and people will be allowed to enter in the area. The government has also approved the construction of link roads to Murree,” he said and added these link roads will greatly help people to enter and exit from Murree.
The chief minister also promised action against hotel owners who were found to be overcharging.
A senior official of Punjab government privy to meeting told Dawn that the local administration tried to pin blame on the administration of Galayiat and Abbottabad. However, the official said that the chief minister was livid with the administration of Rawalpindi division.
What will the probe seek to uncover?
According to the committee’s terms of reference, it will seek to establish whether – following the issuance of severe weather warnings, the relevant departments coordinate to formulate a joint plan of action to prevent a crisis. It will also seek to uncover whether travel advisories were issued, warning people not to travel to Murree and whether any measures were taken to regulate the influx of vehicles and tourists into Murree.
The committee will also ascertain whether a contingency plan was prepared to deal with a crisis situation, if it occurred. It will also seek to discover the placement of snow-removing machinery, vehicle-lifters and snow mobiles at strategic points and whether emergency services such as Rescue 1122 and hospitals were available.
The committee has been tasked with completing its report within seven days.
Despite the ban on entry into Murree, several tourists are still stranded there. Even though many have been brought to the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, a number of people still stuck in the hill station complained of inflated prices of food items and lodgings.
Local sources said a young girl, who was found trapped in the snow by locals, also died on Sunday. However, Rescue 1122 did not confirm this or revise the death toll.
“I came with my family to enjoy snowfall but became stranded here. The administration told us the road was too slippery so I had no option but to stay here,” Muhammad Nasir, a resident of Rawalpindi’s Satellite Town area, told Dawn from Murree.
He said following the tragedy, the prices of food items had doubled and restaurants were filled to the brim, adding that he had to pay Rs40,000 for one night’s stay with four members of his family crammed in the same room.
Anis Ahmed, a resident of Lahore, told Dawn he was brought back to Islamabad with the help of the army. We are three friends who went to Murree but after reports of people dying, our parents were worried,” he said.
He said that his brother tried to come to Murree to bring us back but he was not allowed to enter. “We got help from army personnel and managed to arrive at Bhara Kahu, where my brother was able to meet us,” he said.
The ban on the entry of vehicles has also kept supplies and goods from coming in. “Supplies can only be delivered once goods transport is allowed into Murree,” a local transporter told Dawn.
Published in Dawn, January 10th, 2022