Saturday, January 08, 2022
The federal government on Saturday deployed personnel of the Pakistan Army and other civil-armed forces for rescue operations in Murree following the tragic deaths of more than 20 tourists who died in their vehicles after being stranded due to heavy snowfall in the area.
The death of a four-year-old girl has pushed the toll to 23, according to rescue officials. The minor girl died in Jhika Gali. She was suffering from severe cold and pneumonia, the rescue officials said. She lost her life as she could not be rushed to the hospital in time.
Yesterday night, a statement by Minister for Interior Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed had put the toll at 22.
The minister said that the situation can only be described as a "natural calamity" and that the area had witnessed "extreme snowfall".
He said that cars were prevented from moving on to Murree, so people began proceeding there on foot, and they too were stopped.
"We hope to bring the situation under control in an hour or two," he said.
The minister said that the deaths were caused due to "suffocation".
According to State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA), heavy machinery has been sent to rescue tourists in Murree.
It also said that machinery has been sent to the Lower Topa area.
The prime minister's aide on political communication, Shahbaz Gill, said that he had walked around various areas with the local administration to survey the situation.
He said when it began to snow heavily, a lot of people left their cars on the roads to seek shelter in hotels.
It is because of these cars that the flow of traffic has been hampered, Gill said.
"The administration remains active and is trying its utmost to ensure all roads are clear for traffic," he said.
Meanwhile, the bodies of ASI Naveed Iqbal, a police official who died in Murree, and his family were taken to his place of residence in Islamabad, police said.
These included the bodies of his four children, his sister, his niece and his nephew.
"All families" stranded in Murree have been shifted to government rest houses and hotels, Buzdar said in a post on Twitter on Saturday evening.
“We are providing them all basic facilities including food, medicines and warm clothes,” he wrote.
Citing police records, Buzdar said that there were a total of 33,745 vehicles in Murree till last night out of which 33,373 vehicles have been evacuated.
The chief minister said that the expressway is "completely clear", traffic is moving, albeit a little slow, on the Old GT Road, and snow and trees are being removed from the track from Kaldana to Barian.
"The entire management of the Rawalpindi division is taking part in rescue operations," he added.
All the routes in Murree were blocked for traffic after thousands of vehicles entered the city at a time when "unprecedented snowfall" took place, as described by Prime Minister Imran Khan.
In a video message earlier in the day the interior minister said the crisis unfolded as Murree witnessed "a huge number of tourists after 15-20 years".
Rasheed said the government was forced to close the road from Islamabad to Murree. "Islamabad and Rawalpindi's commissioners, deputy commissioners, and police are carrying out rescue operations," he said.
The interior minister said five platoons of the Pakistan Army have been called in for rescue efforts, while Rangers and Frontier Corps will be deployed on an emergency basis.
"At least 1,000 vehicles have been stuck since last night [...] some have been evacuated; 16-19 deaths took place in cars. The locals provided food and blankets to the stranded people."
The interior minister said the authorities would evacuate 1,000 vehicles by today evening, while the roads would remain closed to Murree till tomorrow 9pm.
"We have also decided to ban tourists who are planning on coming to Murree on foot; this is not the time to come to Murree," Rasheed said.
Talking to Geo.tv, SHO Murree Police Station Raja Rasheed said: “There has been over 4 to 4.5 feet of snowfall in Murree. There has never been this much snowfall in this area.”
He said that most of the people who died in Murree did not die due to the cold, they died as they left their heaters on in the car and went to sleep.
“The fumes from the heater killed them.”
Tayyab Gondal, the cousin of Naveed Iqbal, blamed the "incompetent" government for his relative's death, as he broke into tears.
Talking to Geo News, he said scores of vehicles have been stuck in Murree for the last 24 hours, while as many as 4,000 vehicles were stranded on the Nathia Gali Road.
"The road from GT Road to Murree was clear; the flow of traffic stopped as soon as we entered Murree. The local administration did not stop us at the toll plaza," Gondal said.
Gondal said: "Had it not been for the government's negligence, my family members would still be alive. The [death of the people] is due to the government's incompetence."
"We have tourist spots but no one to look after them," he said.
He added that several families are still waiting for someone to rescue them. "I sent my live location to [the local administration], but no one reached out to help me."
ASI Iqbal, his wife, four daughters, and two sons are among the deceased, according to rescue officials.
The Punjab government has declared Murree as a calamity-hit area after heavy snowfall wreaked havoc in the city. Taking notice of the chaos and emergency situation, Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar has directed to open the government’s offices and rest houses for the stranded tourists.
He directed to provide every possible relief to the tourists and accelerate the ongoing rescue operation to evacuate the people from the hill station.
The chief minister ordered to move additional resources from Rawalpindi and other cities to Murree to speed up the relief operation.
CM Buzdar also directed to send his official helicopter to Murree for the rescue mission.
Prime Minister Imran Khan, responding to the incident, said: "Shocked and upset at tragic deaths of tourists on road to Murree."
He mentioned that "unprecedented snowfall and rush of people proceeding without checking weather conditions caught district administration unprepared".
The prime minister said he has ordered an inquiry into the matter and was putting in place a "strong regulation" to ensure the prevention of such tragedies in the future.
According to the local administration, rain and blizzards are forecast tonight in and around Murree, with thunderstorms at a speed of 50-90 kmph and heavy snowfall.
The administration has warned the citizens not to leave their homes in severe weather or turn to Murree as severe weather conditions are likely to continue till late at night.
For the last two days, continuous snowfall has been taking place in Murree, and with that, hundreds of thousands of tourists are heading towards the town.
Geo News, citing officials, reported that an estimated 125,000 vehicles have entered the city so far, due to which severe traffic jam was witnessed on the roads.
Rawalpindi deputy commissioner has confirmed that that the road leading to the tourist site has been closed at Bhara Kahu tool plaza to deal with the situation.
Thousands of tourists, including women and children, have been trapped on the roads in the area since last night. Officials of the traffic police, however, were making their efforts to restore the flow of traffic on the roads.
The tourists have demanded of the government to help evacuate them from the area.
Taking to Twitter, Rawalpindi deputy commissioner said, “Around 23000 vehicles have been evacuated safely from Murree. Around 1000 are still stranded.”
He maintained that the district admin is working round the clock to evacuate the remaining vehicles safely.
Earlier, Sheikh Rasheed had appealed to the tourists, especially families, to refrain from travelling to Murree and Galyat.
He had maintained that the tourists will not be allowed to go beyond 17 Mile Interchange. However, citizens with an extreme emergency will be granted permission to travel to Murree and Galyat.
Similarly, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said that a large number of vehicles were heading towards Murree and other hilly areas, making it impossible for the local administration to facilitate them.
He urged the people to postpone their plan for a few days.