All eight passengers trapped inside a cable car since early Tuesday morning in Allai tehsil of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Battagram were rescued late at night after an operation that spanned over 14 hours.
The successful completion of the operation was first confirmed in a statement issued by Rescue 1122 and later by the military’s media affairs wing.
Interim Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar also confirmed the development on social media platform X (formerly Twitter).
“Relieved to know that all the kids have been successfully and safely rescued. Great teamwork by the military, rescue departments, district administration as well as the local people,” he said.
The incident had occurred early in the morning — estimated between 7am and 8am — when six students and two locals were on the way to school.
They got stuck when two wires of the cable car snapped, Assistant Commissioner (AC) Jawad Hussain earlier told Dawn.com, adding the cable car was privately run by locals for transportation across rivers as there were no roads or bridges in the area.
The cable car remained dangling in the middle of a deep ravine surrounded by towering mountains and a rocky surface along with the Jhangri river for hours.
Initially, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) estimated that the passengers were stuck at a height of 1,000-2,000ft. But after the rescue operation ended, the ISPR said they were stranded at a height of 600ft.
Hours-long rescue operation
The rescue operation to retrieve the stuck passengers began in the morning, but the first two children could not be rescued before late in the evening.
They were rescued by the armed forces amid rough weather and following multiple attempts shortly before sunset as part of an operation that saw the use of four helicopters.
Once the darkness set in, state broadcaster PTV News reported that the aerial operation had been “called off” due to “night and weather conditions” but rescue efforts through “alternative means” were ongoing.
A Dawn.com correspondent at the site saw area locals preparing to launch a rescue attempt from on ground. The procedure, which he described as “quite risky”, involved a rescuer sliding on a rope to approach the cable car.
The rescuer is suspended with a sling and approaches the affected site/person. He or she is tied with the rescuer or another sling is used to hoist the person. Meanwhile, the helicopter pilot and rescuer have to be cautious of the downdraft (air that is deflected towards the ground) that is generated by the chopper’s propellers.
Earlier, AC Jawad Hussain was the first to confirm the rescue of the first child to Dawn.com.
The child was rescued by Pakistan Army personnel, the AC said, adding that belts had been delivered to the passengers inside the cable car. The first child was rescued with the help of a rope that was hooked onto the belt he was wearing.
Explaining the rescue process, a Dawn News correspondent present on site said a commando of the Pakistan Army’s Special Services Group (SSG) conducted the rescue mission, and dropped the child at a nearby makeshift helipad.
Soon after, the news of the second child’s rescue was shared by KP Rescue 1122 Spokesperson Bilal Faizi as well as Hazara Deputy Inspector General of Police Tahir Ayub Khan.
The military’s media affairs wing also confirmed the army had rescued the two children while efforts were under way to retrieve the remaining people.
Separately, Deputy Commissioner Tanveerur Rehman told AFP that “zipline experts and other civil and military experts and local cable operators are on the spot and helping us in the rescue operation”.
State broadcaster Radio Pakistan, meanwhile, reported that food and drinks were being supplied to the stranded people via a small chairlift dolly.
Later, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said three more children had been rescued.
So far, five children had been rescued, the ISPR statement issued around 9:45pm — more than 12 hours after the rescue operation began — said.
After the operation concluded around 11am, an ISPR statement termed it “extremely complicated and difficult”.
It said the general commanding officer of the SSG led it and the unit’s sling team rescued the stranded people.
“They retrieved all the people stuck in the chairlift and moved them to a safe location,” the statement read, adding that the operation was “expeditiously” initiated by the Pakistan Army Aviation and SSG on the directions of the army chief and later joined by the SSG’s sling team.
“It was an extremely difficult operation, and Pakistan Army and Pakistan Air Force (PAF) helicopter promptly reached the site and began the operation.
“The Pakistan Army Aviation provided complete technical assistance to the sling team, which made the successful completion of the operation possible,” the statement said.
A helicopter of the PAF was also used in rescue efforts, the ISPR said, praising Pakistan Army and PAF pilots for their expertise during the operation.
Moreover, local cable crossing experts, local residents and the civil administration also assisted in the operation, the statement said.
It said the operation was a “unique” one in Pakistan’s history, during which the sling team of the SSG, PAF, local administration and cable crossing experts proved their mettle.
Meanwhile, President Dr Arif Alvi said he was glad to know that the rescue operation had been completed and urged the administration to conduct a comprehensive survey of all local chairlifts to ensure the public’s safety.
Impediments to rescue efforts
Earlier, Shariq Riaz Khattak, a rescue official at the site of the incident, told Reuters that initially two attempts at rescue were aborted.
He added that a cable 30 feet above the dangling cable car was impeding the operation.
He explained that the rescue mission was complicated due to gusty winds in the area and the fact the helicopters’ rotor blades risked further destabilising the lift.
Similarly, tehsil chairman Ghulamullah told Geo News that “every time the helicopter lowered the rescuer closer to the chairlift, the wind from the helicopter would shake and disbalance the chairlift making the children scream in fear”.
DC Tanveerur Rehman explained to AFP that “this is a delicate operation that demands meticulous accuracy. The helicopter can not approach the chairlift closely, as its downwash (air pressure) might snap the sole chain supporting it”.
Syed Jawad Ahmed, a former army pilot, gave a similar analysis while speaking to Geo News.
“The television footage clearly shows the helicopter battling against strong winds, struggling to maintain a steady position,” he said, adding that swift winds were a primary factor impeding the commandos’ efforts.
He was of the view that a smaller helicopter could potentially execute the task more effectively owing to its inherent stability.
Additionally, Ahmed raised the possibility of employing an MI-17 helicopter for the rescue mission. However, he acknowledged that this option was contingent upon the terrain, which seemed unfavourable given the high altitude and challenging conditions.
AC Hussain told Dawn.com that the local administration along with Rescue 1122 teams were present at the spot, but due to the height and the hilly terrain, it was not possible for rescue officials to carry out a relief operation.
He said immediately after the incident was reported, a request was sent to the provincial chief secretary for a helicopter to rescue the passengers.
As sunset approached, Rescue 1122 spokesperson Bilal Faizi told Dawn.com that the rescue operation would continue into the night.
“Flashlights, disaster vehicles and [rescue] personnel are present at the site, while rescue authorities and the Pakistan Army are preparing a joint strategy to continue operation at night,” he said.
Student speaks to media from cable car
Talking to Geo News in the morning, Gulfaraz, one of the passengers stuck in the cable car, said two of the students aboard were slipping in and out of unconsciousness.
The 20-year-old said the stuck students were between the ages of 10 and 15 years.
Gulfaraz urged the state authorities to take action keeping “human empathy and human life” in mind. He added, “People in our area are standing here and crying”.
When asked if the students had any food items with them, Gulfaraz replied they did not even have drinking water: “Where will food items come from? […] There is a great need for drinking water.”
He added that his mobile battery was also low while others had a “simple mobile phone”.
Hours later, he spoke to AFP on the phone while still stuck in midair. “The evening is coming nearer. Tell us why the helicopters are going back?” he said during the conversation that took place in the evening.
By then, government official Rehman told AFP that several military helicopters flew reconnaissance sorties and an airman was lowered by a harness to deliver food, water and medicine.
Meanwhile, Abdul Nasir Khan, a local resident, said while speaking to Reuters, “We are helplessly looking at them but can’t help.”
PM asks authorities to utilise all resources for rescue operation
PM Kakar had earlier directed authorities to immediately rescue the trapped people, Radio Pakistan reported.
It said the premier has directed the NDMA, the KP Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) and all relevant rescue agencies to rescue students and teachers by utilising all resources.
He further instructed that the “safety arrangements on all such chairlifts in the hilly areas” be ensured and directed to immediately close the chairlifts which are in dilapidated condition and do not meet safety standards, the report added.
Radio Pakistan further said that the NDMA has provided coordination support to the PDMA for the rescue of the persons.
Safety audit has been asked from all PDMAs by the NDMA on tourist infrastructure in their respective areas, the report added.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa caretaker Chief Minister Mohammad Azam Khan also took notice of the incident and directed that action be taken on an “emergency basis for the safe rescue of the stuck persons”.
Lack of roads
Iqbal, the school teacher, explained that at least 150 students took the hazardous journey to school by cable car every day due to the lack of road facilities in the area.
“There are no other arrangements,” he lamented, adding that no such incident had occurred previously.
The teacher further said that it had been around eight years since the cable car was installed and it was checked every month.
Separately, DPO Sonia Shamroz highlighted the need for maintaining cable cars and chairlifts in the area because of their frequent use.
She noted that using chairlifts was the usual mode of transport for most children in such “hilly terrains”, which is why maintenance was extremely important.
Additional input from Reuters and AFP.