PAF continues relief operation in Murree

ISLAMABAD   -   Emergency workers and Pakistan Army troops rescued hundreds of people from cars while clearing all the main roads almost 36 hours after the deadly snowstorm hit the hilly town of Murree.

The bodies of the victims were shifted to the native towns on ambulances where they were buried amid tears and screaming on Sunday.  At least 22 tourists including woman and children died in their vehicles after being stuck during one of the unprecedented snowstorm. 

On Friday, the snowstorm had felled trees and blocked roads in and out of the town while around 1,000 vehicles became stranded on the roads.

 “All the main communication arteries of Murree and its vicinity on Sunday were cleared for all types of move by the Pakistan Army engineers including the Kuldana, Barian Road,” says a press statement issued by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Directorate. “After clearance of main roads, army engineers are now focusing road links,” the ISPR said. 

Army relief camps and medical facilitates were fully operating and army transport was plying for moving of stranded tourists to Rawalpindi and Islamabad, it said. 

Federal Minister for Interior Sheikh Rashid Ahmed on Sunday said that the ban on using roads for Murree and Galyat would continue for further 24 hours. In a statement, the minister said that the citizens of Murree and adjacent areas would only be allowed to travel on these roads while showing their national identity cards. He said that the situation of Murree and Galyat was being monitored on a regular basis.

He said that any decision to allow tourists to Murree and Galyat would be made while considering the latest situation.

‘Victims laid to rest’

At least seven victims of the tragedy were laid to rest at their ancestral graveyard in tehsil Talagang on Sunday afternoon. A collective funeral prayer of the Assistant Sub Inspector of Islamabad Police Naveed Iqbal and his family was offered under immense grief and sorrow. Punjab Minister for Mines and Minerals Hafiz Ammar Yasir, Deputy Commissioner Chakwal Bilal Hashim, and people from different walks of life attended the prayer. 

Meanwhile, the funeral prayers of six-member family victims of Murree tragedy were offered at Rawal Park, Sadiqabad here on Sunday. Muhammad Shahzad, his wife, two young daughters and two children were killed in the Murree tragedy.

A large number of social, political and religious personalities attended the funeral prayers. After the funeral prayers, the bodies were sent to their hometown Hamak. The bodies of those killed in the tragedy were taken home from the Rawalpindi Institute of Urology late Saturday night.

‘Unprecedented snowfall’

A tourist trapped in her car for hours by unprecedented snowfall in Pakistan described how she “saw death” in front of her as she waited for help.

Samina was in one of thousands who rushed to view the winter snowfall in the hilltop town of Murree.

Samina told the BBC she had left her home at 16:00 local time to travel to Murree, but soon found herself among those trapped in the snow. Pictures and videos posted on social media showed stranded cars bumper to bumper, with snow piled on their roofs.

“I could see death in front of me,” Samina said. “It was like there were snow peaks built around our car... I can’t explain in words what I was going through. 

“We were praying God may help us and we shouldn’t be perished in a snowstorm.”

According to Tariq Ullah, an official in the nearby town of Nathiagali, the blizzard dumped up to 1.5m (5ft) of snow within just a few hours. “It was unprecedented,” he told AFP news agency. “There were strong winds, uprooted trees, avalanches. People around were terrified.”

Samina was finally rescued at 10:00 the next morning, spending the night in one of the shelters set up in the resort town, which sits at 2,300 metres (7,500 feet) above sea level. 

Authorities said eight people froze to death, while asphyxiation after inhaling fumes while trying to keep warm in their vehicles has been given as a possible reason for the others.

Questions are now being asked about how this was allowed to happen. “We didn’t get any type of alert from society, from the government, from Google, from the news, from the weather,” Duaa Kashif Ali, a tourist from Islamabad, told AFP. 

She and 13 other family members and friends abandoned their cars and walked about a mile (1.5km) to a guesthouse where they found shelter.

According to the BBC’s Farhat Javed - who is in Murree - there is space for about 5,000 cars in the town. However on Friday, 100,000 visitors had been allowed to enter, causing a massive traffic jam as they struggled through the deep snow. 

Vehicles were abandoned on the roads, and emergency workers - who were first made aware of the problem on Friday morning - told the BBC their own response was slowed by the traffic jams.

The Punjab provincial government said there would be a full investigation into whether there was a failure to act on severe weather warnings. 

“A high-level inquiry will be launched and if there is any kind of negligence, then action will be taken against all those involved,” spokesman Hasaan Khawar said. 

But this will not happen before the roads to Murree - which was built by the British in the 19th Century as a medical base for its colonial troops - are cleared. 

Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is carrying out rescue and relief operations in flood affected areas of Balochistan and Murree. 

During the operations in Balochistan, a number of sorties have been flown by PAF transport aircraft and helicopters in which relief goods including ration, tents, food items, medicines, drinking water, blankets and essentially required machinery have been airlifted. PAF has also established a medical camp in Pasni to provide medical facilities to the flood affected people. 

On the other hand, an operation for the evacuation of stranded snow-tourists in Murree and Galyat is in full swing by the PAF. During the rescue operation, PAF personnel have shifted more than 100 persons including women and children at PAF Bases Kalabagh and Lower Topa to facilitate the sufferers during this testing time. Shelter, food and medical facilities were provided to the affected families by the PAF rescue teams, said the PAF press statement.