AFP Kuldana (Pakistan)
Army rescuers yesterday cleared routes around a Pakistan hill town sheltering thousands of tourists after 22 people died in vehicles trapped by heavy snow.
The resort town of Murree, around 70km northeast of Islamabad, was inundated with tourists and day trippers last week after unusually heavy snow turned it into a winter wonderland.
But a blizzard from Friday onwards felled trees and blocked narrow roads leading in and out of the town, which clings to steep hills and valleys at an altitude of 2,300m.
“It was not snow, and not even heavy snow, it was unprecedented... with four to five feet in few hours,” Tariq Ullah, an administrative official in nearby Nathia Gali, told AFP yesterday.
“(I) never saw such a huge snowstorm in my life. There were strong winds, uprooted trees, avalanches. People around were terrified, each having his or her own account of suffering.”
Officials said nearly 100,000 visitors in thousands of vehicles had thronged the town by Friday, causing an enormous traffic jam even before the blizzard. They said 22 people died in vehicles trapped in the snow overnight Friday — either from cold, or carbon monoxide poisoning from exhaust fumes generated by drivers running engines to keep warm.
They included 10 children — six who died alongside their mother and father, a senior police officer.
“We are switching on the heater and going to sleep,” Dawn newspaper quoted assistant inspector Naveed Iqbal as saying in a final call to his son in the capital.
He was buried late Saturday alongside his family at a ceremony attended by hundreds of fellow officers.
Yesterday, a steady stream of vehicles and people on foot were making their way out of hard-hit Kuldana, close to Murree.
Many vehicles were stuck by the side of the road, bonnets open, waiting for a jump-start after draining their batteries to run heaters during their ordeal.
Piles of rubbish marked spots where cars had spent the cold night.
Prime Minister Imran Khan said he was shocked and upset by the tragedy, but that the unprecedented snowfall and rush of people “caught district admin unprepared”.
Several Pakistan newspapers, however, excoriated administrators yesterday, noting the country’s weather bureau warned as early as January 6 of the approaching blizzard.
“All concerned authorities are particularly advised to remain ‘ALERT’ during the forecast period,” the National Weather Forecasting Centre said Thursday, adding “heavy snowfall” could cause road closures in Murree and elsewhere.
Authorities have promised an investigation.
“Our first priority was rescue, which is ongoing, then relief,” Hasaan Khawar, spokesman for the Punjab provincial government, said in a video on his Twitter page yesterday.
“Then a high-level inquiry will be launched and if there is any kind of negligence, then action will be taken against all those involved.”
The Pakistan military’s public relations department said they had pulled all survivors from cars trapped along the route to Murree and taken them to shelters set up in the town.
More than 1,000 abandoned vehicles along the route were hampering efforts by bulldozers to clear snow from roads, it said, and in some areas troops were using shovels.
Leading up to the weekend, Pakistan social media had been full of pictures and videos of people playing in the snow around Murree, a picturesque resort town built by the British in the 19th century as a sanatorium for its colonial troops.
Authorities warned as early as last weekend that too many vehicles were trying to enter the town, but even that failed to discourage hordes of daytrippers from the capital.
Many Pakistanis complained on social media yesterday that Murree hoteliers and guest-house owners had compounded the problem by price gouging, prompting stranded people to spend the night in their cars rather than pay for a room.
“Things would have been different if local people and hotels were cooperative, but the reputation and conduct of the local people of Murree are very bad in this respect,” a senior government official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
There were also reports, however, of locals throwing open their homes to stranded tourists and offering food and blankets to those caught in the open.
Tourists question response to unfolding disaster
As unprecedented snowfall thawed at a popular Pakistan mountain resort yesterday, rescued tourists were found reckoning with the deaths of 22 fellow travellers in a frozen traffic jam.
“We didn’t get any type of alert from society, from the government, from Google, from the news, from the weather,” said 18-year-old Duaa Kashif Ali, a tourist from Islamabad.
“Locals helped us,” she told AFP, after emerging from a guesthouse where she waited out the worst snowstorm witnessed by Murree in decades.
The mountain-perch town — 70 km northeast of Islamabad — has long been a favourite for tourists, who swarmed to see vistas dusted with fresh snowfall this week.
Roads were jammed with traffic from some 100,000 visitors when a blizzard dumped four feet (1.2 metres) of snow from Friday onwards.
Stuck in their cars overnight, 22 people died from the cold or carbon monoxide poisoning from exhaust fumes. Among them were 10 children.
“People here were literally weeping... when they heard,” recalled 47-year-old tourist Kashif Ishaq. As he spoke, a convoy of hulking heavy machinery cleared the ice-bitten roads behind him, ending two days of snowbound isolation for the satellite village of Ratti Gali.
Ishaq arrived here with his daughter Duaa Kashif Ali on Friday night.
Alongside 13 other family members and friends, they ditched three stranded cars and hiked 1.5 kilometres (1 mile) to where a guesthouse owner took them in.
“The locals really helped us,” said Ishaq.
“They offered their services, they offered their homes, they offered their restaurants and hotels free of charge.”
In nearby Kuldana, about 5,000 people were taken in at the Army School of Logistics on Friday night.
“It was like a natural disaster,” said Major Mohamed Umar. “There was no electricity, no gas, no telephone, nothing working.”
Eleven-year-old Arosh Yasir, warming up by a gas fire with her family, said they spent the night in their car on Friday before being rescued the following morning.
“Our food was cold and there was no way back or forward,” she told AFP.
“I started crying and praying.”
Many Pakistanis complained on social media that hoteliers had pushed up prices to capitalise on stranded customers, prompting them to sleep in cars.
Arosh said on Saturday hotels were “either very expensive or had no space”, forcing them into the army camp. Yesterday afternoon, the rescue effort had largely morphed to a repair and salvage operation, aided by steady sunshine winnowing away snowdrifts. Workmen clambered mountainside pylons to knock free iced electricity wires, whilst others crowded around open car bonnets trying to coax engines back to life.
Some vehicles still remained abandoned under vast snowbanks, forcing ploughs to slalom the precarious mountain tracks.
Among clear spots in the ice were small scatterings of empty water bottles and snackfood packaging, marking where many tourists spent Friday night in their cars.
“It was my worst experience,” said 21-year-old Aafia Ali, a visitor from Karachi among the party taking shelter at Ratti Gali.
Several Pakistani newspapers published scathing articles yesterday, attacking authorities for failing to close off the area despite ample warning of heavy snow.
That sentiment was shared among those preparing to make their way off the mountain.
“The management of this area, they are responsible for this,” said Aafia Ali.
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