21 people freeze to death in Murree, thousands still stranded
ISLAMABAD: At least 21 people have died in freezing temperatures after being stuck in their vehicles in the Pakistani hill station of Murree, government and rescue officials said, with travellers stranded overnight on snowed-in roads in a crisis that has trapped thousands.
Tens of thousands of people arrived in Murree in the past two days to see the snow, despite appeals by authorities to postpone their plans because of bad weather and roadblocks. The Pakistan Meteorological Department had predicted heavy snowfall in Murree and the Galiyat mountainous regions from January 6 to 9.
On Saturday, the local administration declared Murree, 64 km (40 miles) northeast of the capital Islamabad, “calamity hit,” with long lines of cars stuck in the resort town after a snowstorm made the roads impassable, stranding motorists without food and water in the freezing cold.
Murree was declared calamity hit on Saturday after at least 21 people froze to death in cars stranded in snow amid a glut of tourist influx. Around 1,000 cars were stuck on the hill station while the Punjab chief minister issued instructions for expediting rescue work and providing aid to the stranded tourists.
Moreover, entry of cars into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Gailyat was banned, according to the province’s chief minister.
According to a list issued by Rescue 1122, 21 people died, including nine children. Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, in a video message, said tourists had flocked to the hill station in such large numbers “for the first time in 15 to 20 years which created a big crisis”.
He said Rawalpindi and Islamabad administrations, along with police, had been working to rescue those stranded, while five platoons of the Pakistan Army, as well as Rangers and Frontier Corps, were called on an emergency basis.
The minister said that around 1,000 cars were stuck on the hill station, confirming that “16 to 19 deaths have occurred in their cars.”
Ahmed said that residents of Murree provided food and blankets to stranded tourists, adding that the administration had closed all routes to the hill station and was now allowing only vehicles planning to take food and blankets.
“God willing, we will rescue 1,000 cars by evening today. We have decided to stop people [travelling] on foot as well. It is no time for [pedestrian] tourists to visit.”
Murree declared calamity hit
Meanwhile, Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar declared Murree calamity hit and imposed a state of emergency in hospitals, police stations, administration offices and Rescue 1122 services.
He also directed the provincial chief secretary, inspector general of police, relief commissioner, director general Rescue 1122 and director general of the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) to undertake rescue work, in addition to providing his helicopter to help with aid efforts.
In a statement issued by his office, the chief minister said that rescuing stranded tourists was the “foremost priority”, adding that all rest houses and state buildings had been opened to them.
The process to rescue the tourists has been expedited while food and essential items are also being provided, Buzdar said.
He also expressed sadness over the deaths of people stuck in the snow, saying he was with the families in their grief.
More than 23,000 cars were evacuated from the area the night before and the rescue operation was going on, he shared. Buzdar appealed to people to strictly follow instructions given by the police and district administration and cooperate with them.
Later in the day, Pakistan Army troops reached Murree to help with the rescue work. In a statement, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said army engineers also reached the area to help open up the main highways.
Complete ban on entry of cars into Galiyat
In a statement, KP Chief Minister Mahmood Khan said he was keeping a close eye on the situation in Galiyat which has also been overcrowded with tourists in the current winter season.
The entry of cars into Galiyat has been banned completely, he said, adding that no untoward accident had occurred in the area where three feet of snow fell a day earlier.
The chief minister added that tourists who had been stranded in cars were rescued and shifted to rest houses and hotels. “Galiyat Development Authority, Rescue 1122 and local administration have been put on high alert to deal with any untoward situation,” he said.
PM Imran Khan expresses sorrow
Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed sorrow and regret over the deaths in Murree, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister (SAPM) on Political Communication Shahbaz Gill shared on Twitter.
“All agencies have been mobilised. Army, 1122, Hazara div(KP) and Pindi div (Punjab) resources are mobilised to open up [and] clear the blocked areas,” he added.
“Shocked & upset at tragic deaths of tourists on road to Murree. Unprecedented snowfall & rush of ppl proceeding without checking weather conditions caught district admin unprepared. Have ordered inquiry & putting in place strong regulation to ensure prevention of such tragedies.”
Fawad appeals to tourists to avoid Murree
Earlier today, Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry also appealed to people to not visit the hill station.
“A large crowd [is headed towards] Murree and hilly areas. Hundreds of thousands of cars are travelling to these areas. It is impossible for the local administration to provide facilities to people in such a large number,” he tweeted.
He urged those people who were at home to delay their travel plans to those areas for some time.