ISLAMABAD: In anticipation of the weather forecast and snow season in Murree this year, four preparatory meetings were held by the authorities. Unfortunately, none of them was attended by either the Punjab chief minister or the commissioner Rawalpindi.
Official sources told The News that one of these meetings was held under the deputy commissioner Rawalpindi on December 13, two were held by the assistant commissioner Murree on November 8 and November 30 respectively whereas one meeting was held on the subject under the station commander Murree on November 30.
In a serious lapse on the part of the Mechanical Wing of the Punjab highway department, the snow clearance machines– 16 in number –were deputed at one point — Sunny Bank. – This was against the SOPs and the decision taken in an earlier meeting to depute these machines on different strategic positions of Murree for the early clearing of important roads.
Additionally, the key officials of the Mechanical Wing of the highway department were missing from Murree when they were badly needed in the town and were operating machines from Rawalpindi. It is also learnt that drivers of the snow-cutting machines arrived late — only after the snowfall ended; they did not come before or during the snowfall. Prior to the snow season and despite repeated requests, the highways construction division did not repair roads, which was one of the causes for the blockage of traffic.
There was also indifference on the part of the National Highway Authority, which did not take measures to remove snow from the Murree Expressway, particularly in areas between Lower Topa and Patriyata. This also caused a blockage of the main exit point.
There were no casualties at the Express Highway, Mall Road, Jhika Gali, Kashmir Point, Bhurban road etc in the snowstorm on January 7. Cars coming from KP were stuck in an average of 4-5 feet snow on Barian Road in which 22 people died in five cars due to the deficiency of oxygen as the heaters were on in the cars. The total number of cars stuck on the roads was 820.
The district administration Rawalpindi (the deputy commissioner and CPO police) sent back almost 55,000 vehicles from the entry points and roads of Murree. This move, sources said, saved many lives. In five days, a total of 150,000 vehicles entered Murree. It is said that the Motorways Police did not turn cars back from the express highway roads.
According to the official view, the incident was a result of a blizzard that engulfed Murree on January 7. According to the Met Office alert dated January 5, heavy rain with snowfall was expected in different areas of the country including Rawalpindi and Murree in particular from January 6 to 9.
The Rawalpindi administration officials claim that the district administration and all other allied agencies responsible for preparing for of any eventualities were fully prepared and had deployed both human and physical resources on the ground to manage the weather and influx of tourists as planned. The number of tourists entering the city limits was being monitored and documented by all the relevant agencies hour by hour.
However, according to these officials’ claims, the weather turned violent on January 7 when a strong blizzard, unprecedented in the area, cloaked Murree. Owing to the developing weather, the deputy commissioner immediately ordered all roads leading towards Murree to be sealed. Both the deputy commissioner and city police officer Rawalpindi joined their teams on the ground and started evacuating vehicles stuck in the storm.
The blizzard resulted in the felling of 16 trees and 60 electric poles on the main arteries of the city which blocked the moving traffic, stranding tourists. These officials insist that rescue and relief efforts by the administration and police continued all through the night. This included evacuating vehicles, rescuing tourists and providing relief to the stranded individuals. Till noon on January 8, 80 percent of the stranded vehicles had been rescued by the civil agencies. In anticipation of the continuing weather situation, the administration called for the assistance of the armed forces in aid of the civil administration to ensure the continuation of relief activities.