MURREE/ISLAMABAD/ RAWALPINDI/LAHORE: Twenty-two persons, including women and children, lost their lives in freezing temperature on Friday night at the hill station Murree. Most of the tourists died in their cars as they were trapped in road jams due to impossible snow clearing operation.
Despite a severe weather warning by the Met Office on January 5, the local managements of Rawalpindi and Islamabad miserably failed to adopt safety measures to prevent hundreds of thousands of visitors from entering Murree in hazardous rainfall and blizzard, resulting in the tragic death of at least 22 people, including children and women. These people died while on the roads for hours in frigid conditions, with vehicles covered by snow. It was a disaster waiting to happen.
On January 5, the Met Office had issued a specific warning of impending calamitous weather. The advisory warned that heavy rain with heavy snowfall over the hills (isolated heavy to very heavy) is expected in all
hilly areas including Murree, Galiyat, Neelum Valley, Naran, Kagan, etc, on 7th January, (Friday).
According to the Met Office, Murree received 17-inch snowfall on Friday. The rainfall would continue during the next 24-hours, the Met Office warned. The Met Office also said that Rawalpindi and Islamabad received a total of 84mm rain on Friday night.
While the tourists who had planned a good, relaxing vacation died on the roads in the frosty cold weather due to heavy road blockages towards Murree, the Rawalpindi and Islamabad administrations were in deep slumber till Saturday morning. They only woke up when the affected people, desperate for help, uploaded their videos on the social media. Different media channels highlighted those video recordings and alarm bells began to ring. The officers called rescue teams to start an operation to rescue the trapped people, but for many it was too late.
The Commissioner Rawalpindi Division, Syed Gulzar Hussain Shah, along with DC Muhammad Ali and others officials, reached Murree to rescue those trapped around mid-day. The Toll Plaza management only minted money and did not stop the public from entering Murree.
The official-ministerial juggernaut of the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad was unaware of the Met Office warning for Murree, Galiyat and Nathiagali. They remained clueless as vehicles in waves dashed towards Murree on Thursday and Friday.
Only after the tragedy unfolded on TV channels and the social media, did the district management move to stop more traffic from entering the city. But by that time, according to AC Murree, 155,000 cars had entered the city with parking spaces for 35,000 only. Huge pile ups of cars and vans could be seen on the snowbound roads with nowhere ahead to go or to scramble for safety as women and children remained crammed into vehicles in subzero temperatures. Many of those visitors were reportedly weeping for help, which was not there. It was heartbreaking to see so many children and women caught up in the hazard. They were hungry, tired and many had no fuel in the cars.
On Saturday morning, the DC Rawalpindi, Muhammad Ali, warned people from travelling to Murree and directed relevant officers to head to Murree to manage the emergency. “We are trying to open all roads of Murree, the situation would be cleared very soon,” he said. Police and Rangers were deployed on pickets to stop the public from entering Murree on Saturday.
Meanwhile, some of the tourists who remained stranded told Geo News that the civil administration was nowhere to be seen, adding that rescue and relief work was being carried out by the Pakistan Army officials only. They praised the army officials for reaching out to them, giving them food items and making efforts to clear the roads.
By mid-day Saturday, the Murree Expressway was still jampacked with visitors wanted to reach Murree. The City Traffic Police Official spokesman, Kashif Sarosh, told The News that there was parking space only for 33,375 motor vehicles here in Murree but over 150,000 motor vehicles entered Murree in two days on Thursday and Friday. He said they had removed all vehicles but on Friday, movement of motor vehicles stopped due to heavy snowfall. Only 33,790 out of over 150,000 motor vehicles were stuck up and could not move due to snowbound conditions, he said. Desperate for safety, many motorists had abandoned their cars in the middle of roads, which also added to the problem of clearing the roads. However, traffic police sources said the National Highways and Motorways officials were slow in removing snow from the roads.
Visitors from different walks of life strongly protested against the district administration for not putting up any safety measures in the face of heavy snowfall. They should have prevented the traffic from going to Murree and must have warned the public from going to Murree in view of the Met office warning of January 5, the people complained.
State of emergency has been imposed in the affected areas and movement of traffic into Murree has been banned for over 24 hours to clear the traffic jams.
Military troops and Rangers have been called in to help the civil administration to rescue thousands of people trapped in different areas of Murree and Galiyat, while thousands of police personnel have been transported there to rescue the tourists and their families, including women and minors.
Federal Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid visited Murree and supervised the rescue work. The minister told the media that over 19 tourists, including children, had died while over 1,000 were still trapped in Murree.
The rescuers disclosed that over 120,000 vehicles entered Murree till last night and choked the traffic in entire Murree and artery roads. Regional Police Officer (RPO) Rawalpindi Region, Ashfaq Ahmad Khan, City Police Officer (CPO) Rawalpindi, Sajid Kiani, Deputy Commissioner Rawalpindi, Mohammad Ali and other operational and administrative officers of Punjab reached Murree and visited the affected areas.
Four friends visiting the hill station were among the dead after heavy snowfall that lashed the popular tourist spot. According to police, all of the victims were friends and were visiting Murree from Mardan. They died of cold while spending the night in their car due to huge traffic jam.
Zahid Zahoor, 27 (Kamalabad Bolan), Ashfaq Younas, 31 (Gujranwala), Maroof Ashraf, 31 (Gujranwala), unidentified male, 30 (Lahore), ASI Naveed Iqbal, 49, Mrs. Naveed Iqbal, 43, along with their four daughters and two sons (Islamabad), Asad Zaman, 22, (Mardan), Mohammad Bilal Ghaffar, 21, Bilal Hussain, 24 (Karachi), Mohammad Shahzad Ismail, 46, and Mrs Shahzad, 35, with their two children were among those who died in the Murree tragedy.
Meanwhile, Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) has directed the 12th Infantry Division, Murree, to extend all support to the stranded people in Murree without waiting for any orders. General Officer Commanding Officer (GoC), Murree, Major General Wajid Aziz, told the media that Chief of the Army Staff has given directives to provide all-out support to people so that they should not face problems. He said that the Murree Expressway was cleared for traffic by 3pm on Saturday whereas evacuation activity was also being carried out in the area between Kuldana and Barian and traffic could not move towards Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
“Our relief and rescue efforts will continue till the last tourist reaches safer place,” Major General Wajid Aziz said. However, he appealed to motorists to avoid spending night in their closed vehicles.
Meanwhile, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) in a statement said that all resources at the disposal of Murree Division in terms of engineers and machinery was mobilized and will remain in the field till all people are evacuated. The ISPR said that heavy machinery from Murree, Army Engineers Division and FWO are working without any pause to assist the people who are stuck. Troops are out in the field. Where machinery cannot reach, troops have been moved and they are clearing traffic and opening roads. All the stranded people will be shifted to five army relief camps established in Murree. “Food, shelter will be provided to people affected by heavy snowfall. Army relief centre has been established at the Army School of Technicians, Barian,” the ISPR said. The relief camps have been established at the Military College, Murree, Jheeka Gali, APS Kuldana, Station Supply Depot Sunny Bank.
The dozers of Frontier Works Organization (FWO) and army engineers are busy keeping roads open. The ISPR further said that Central Control Division has also been established at the Murree Division.
Rescue centers has been established at the APS and Army School of Logistics Kuldana. All relief camps have been provided with heating arrangements.
Meanwhile, on the special instructions of Air Chief Marshal Zaheer Ahmed Baber Sidhu, Chief of the Air Staff, Pakistan Air Force, PAF Bases Kalabagh and Lower Topa are actively participating in relief operations in the affected areas. Crisis Management Cells have also been established at both bases to facilitate the stranded personnel and families. Shelter, food, warm clothing and medical facilities are being provided to tourists stuck in heavy snow. During the operation, PAF personnel have rescued a number of families and shifted them to safer places. Following an improvement in weather conditions, helicopter operations will also be started for evacuation of the stranded tourists.
Meanwhile, Punjab Chief Minister Sardar Usman Buzdar on Saturday directed to expedite the rescue operation for stranded tourists in Murree due to heavy snowfall. He said this while presiding over a meeting held here to review in detail the situation developed in Murree after the heavy snowfall. The meeting was told that necessary machinery was being shifted to Murree, whereas all roads leading to Murree had already been closed.
The Punjab government was in frequent contact with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government for better coordination. Chief Minister Sardar Usman Buzdar instructed to use all out resources to rescue all the stranded tourists before night. He said that an emergency had been imposed after declaring Murree snowfall as natural calamity while the help of army had been sought for rescue activities besides deploying additional police force in the area. Food and other essential items were being provided to the tourists on priority, the meeting was told.
Meanwhile, Minister for Interior, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed on Saturday reached Murree to monitor the rescue operation. Talking to the media, he said that the administration would continue the rescue operation to evacuate all stranded tourists. He said roads from Punjab side were clear now as around 1,000 vehicles had been evacuated. He said heavy machinery would clear further roads in Gudana and Paharian while the remaining 70 to 80 percent of roads had been cleared. He said all government rest houses had been opened to help tourists on the direction of Chief Minister Punjab. He added that helicopter service would be started soon as the weather conditions got better. Meanwhile, Chief Secretary Punjab, Kamran Ali Afzal, has said the Murree tragedy has been heartrending.
While the district administration, police and traffic police both in Punjab and KP had taken all precautionary measures, the severity of the blizzard was unprecedented, he added. “We are doing our best to rescue the people stranded. Operations have been underway since last night. The Army and Rangers are mobilised and their rescue teams are in field. NHA and C&W are moving heavy machinery to clear the snow,” he said.
He stated that Rescue 1122 was in the field. Accommodation is being provided to people in government buildings. Food, blankets and other necessities are also being provided. The help and support provided by the local people of Murree and adjoining areas is much appreciated, he said.
Meanwhile, the situation was said to be particularly perilous in Rawalpindi and Islamabad where the concerned managements issued a red alert amid heavy rainfall and flooding risk.
The sources said that the red alert was issued over possible flooding after heavy rains disrupted life in twin cities. The Islamabad administration said Sector E-11, Soan Gardens, Bhara Kahu, and Korang Nullah other with adjoining areas are expected to be inundated following a heavy downpour.