VIDEO: 21 tourists freeze to death in cars in Pakistan’s hill station after heavy snowfall

People stand next to cars stuck under fallen trees on a snow-covered road in Murree, Pakistan on Saturday. Reuters

Tariq Butt, Correspondent / AFP

At least 21 people have frozen to death in cars stuck in the snow amid an influx of tourists to Murree, declared a disaster on Saturday.

Police reported that at least eight people froze to death in their cars, while it was not immediately clear whether others died of asphyxiation after inhaling exhaust fumes in snow-covered vehicles.

Rescue 1122, the Pakistani emergency service, has released a list of 21 people who have been confirmed dead. It included a policeman, his wife and their six children. The people who died were between 21 and 49 years old, according to a statement from the Rawalpindi divisional emergency officer.

The Pakistani meteorological department had predicted heavy snowfall in Murree and Galiyat from January 6 to 9. About 1,000 cars were stranded at the mountain station. The entry of cars to Gailyat of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) was prohibited on Friday evening.

The office of the chief minister of Punjab province said the surroundings had been declared a “disaster area” and urged people to stay away.

Prime Minister Imran Khan said he was shocked and upset by the tragedy. “Unprecedented snowfall and a rush of ppl proceeding without checking the weather conditions caught the district administrator off guard,” he tweeted. “Ordered an investigation and put in place strict regulations to ensure the prevention of such tragedies.”

Viral videos

A video shared on social media showed cars packed bumper-to-bumper, with three-foot-tall (three-foot) piles of snow on their roofs.

“Heavy snowfall has caused traffic jams and the closure of roads,” Babar Khan, a tourist stranded for hours, told AFP by telephone. “Roads have also been closed due to fallen trees in many places.”

Pakistan’s National Weather Forecast Center website said heavy snowfall was expected in the region until Sunday afternoon, while Information Minister Fawad Chaudry said “decades “weather records had been broken in the past 48 hours.

Traffic warning

Authorities warned last weekend that too many vehicles were trying to enter Murree, but that failed to deter hordes of day-trippers from the capital.

“It is not only tourists, but the local population are also facing serious problems,” Usman Abbasi, another stranded visitor, told AFP. “Gas cylinders are depleted and potable water is not available in most areas – it is frozen or the water pipes have been damaged due to severe cold.” He said hotels were short of food and mobile phone services were spotty. “People are facing a terrible situation.”

Army troops are participating in a rescue operation on Saturday in an area affected by heavy snowfall in Murree. PA

The town of about 30,000 residents, at an elevation of 2,300 meters (7,500 feet), clings to the sides of steep hills and valleys and is served by narrow roads that are frequently clogged even in good weather.

Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed in a video message said five Pakistani army platoons, along with the Rangers and the Frontier Corps, were called in urgently while the administrations of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, as well as the police, were busy rescuing those stranded.

He said tourists had flocked to the hill station in such large numbers “for the first time in 15 to 20 years, creating a great crisis.”

Sheikh Rashid said residents had sheltered people trapped in the city and provided blankets and food for those they could reach on the outskirts.

Pakistan-Winter-tragedy-hand6-750 Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed speaks during his visit to Murree. Reuters

Authorities said schools and government buildings welcomed those who could get to the city from blocked roads. Helicopters were also on standby when the weather cleared.

Declared emergency

The Chief Minister of Punjab, Usman Buzdar, declared the Murree calamity and imposed a state of emergency on hospitals, police stations, administrative offices and rescue services 1122.

He also asked the Provincial Chief Secretary, the Inspector General of Police, the Commissioner of Relief, the Director General of Rescue 1122 and the Director General of the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) to undertake rescue work, in addition to providing his helicopter to help with aid efforts.
Members of the military take part in a rescue operation in an area affected by heavy snowfall in Murree. PA

In a statement issued, the chief minister said rescuing stranded tourists was the “top priority”, adding that all nursing homes and public buildings had been opened to them.

The process of rescuing tourists has been speeded up while food and essential items are also provided, Buzdar said. He also expressed his sadness at the deaths of people stuck in the snow, saying he was with the families in their grief.

The chief minister shared the same in a tweet later today, saying he had ordered work to be speeded up to save citizens stuck in the snow and send more machinery from Rawalpindi.

Pakistan-Winter-tragedy-main1-750 Soldiers take part in a rescue operation in an area affected by heavy snowfall in Murree. PA

More than 23,000 cars were evacuated from the area the day before and the rescue operation was underway, he said. Buzdar called on people to strictly follow the instructions given by the police and the district administration and to cooperate with them.

In a statement, KP chief minister Mahmood Khan said he was closely monitoring the situation in Galiyat, which is also overcrowded with tourists during the current winter season.

The entry of cars into Galiyat was completely prohibited, he said, adding that no untoward accidents had occurred in the area where three feet of snow fell a day earlier.

The chief minister added that tourists stranded in cars have been rescued and transferred to rest homes and hotels. “The Galiyat Development Authority, Rescue 1122 and the local administration have been placed on high alert to deal with any dire situation,” he said.

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