Efforts to rescue passengers trapped inside a cable car since early morning in Allai tehsil of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Battagram are continuing into the night with two children rescued.
Six people still remain inside the cable car dangling thousands of feet in the air above a ravine.
The two children were rescued by the armed forces amid rough weather and following multiple attempts shortly before the sunset as part of an operation that saw the use of four helicopters.
Once the darkness set in, state broadcaster PTV News reported that the aerial operation had been “called off” due to “night and weather conditions” but rescue efforts through “alternative means” were ongoing.
A Dawn.com correspondent at the site saw area locals preparing to launch a rescue attempt from on ground. The procedure, which he described as “quite risky”, involved a rescuer sliding on a rope to approach the cable car.
Earlier, Assistant Commissioner Jawad Hussain was the first to confirm the rescue of the first child to Dawn.com.
The child was rescued by Pakistan Army personnel, the AC said, adding that belts had been delivered to the passengers inside the cable car. The first child was rescued with the help of a rope that was hooked onto the belt he was wearing.
Soon after, the news of the second child’s rescue was shared by KP Rescue 1122 Spokesperson Bilal Faizi as well as Hazara Deputy Inspector General of Police Tahir Ayub Khan.
The military’s media affairs wing also confirmed it had rescued the two children, adding that the operation was under way to rescue the rest of the individuals stuck in the chairlift.
Meanwhile, Allai valley tehsil chairman Mufti Ghulamullah said the army helicopters retreated after the sunset due to poor visibility. “The operation is suspended,” he added.
Explaining the rescue process, a Dawn News correspondent present on site said a Special Services Group (SSG) commando conducted the rescue mission, and dropped the child at a nearby makeshift helipad.
He further said that three helicopters were taking part in the rescue process — two belonging to the army and one to the Pakistan Air Force.
The correspondent further said darkness had fallen upon the area and that flashlights as well as other lighting equipment were being used on to aid the rescue efforts.
The rescuer is suspended with a sling and approaches the affected site/person. He or she is tied with the rescuer or another sling is used to hoist the person. Meanwhile, the helicopter pilot and rescuer have to be cautious of the downdraft (air that is deflected towards the ground) that is generated by the chopper’s propellers.
Earlier, AC Hussain had said that a team of the Pakistan Army’s SSG was on the way to the site, adding that troops of the military’s rapid response force were also on the ground.
Television footage aired around 4:45pm showed a rescuer suspended from a sling being lowered and positioned adjacent to the cable car.
The incident occurred in the Allai tehsil early morning — estimated between 7am and 8am — when six students and two locals were on the way to school.
They got stuck when two wires of the cable car snapped, the assistant commissioner said, adding that the cable car was privately run by locals for transportation across rivers as there were no roads or bridges in the area.
The cable car is dangling in the middle of a deep ravine surrounded by towering mountains and a rocky surface, along with the Jhangri river beneath it.
Details regarding the height at which the passengers are stuck is not yet clear. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) estimated it to be 1,000-2,000ft.
The rescue operation
Earlier, two helicopters belonging to the Pakistan Army and the Pakistan Air Force arrived at the site for a rescue operation. Two attempts were made to move towards the cable car. One of the helicopters then moved away.
A Dawn.com correspondent present at the site said the second backup helicopter that continued to hover above the cable car also left after a while. Later, he said he could see a helicopter approaching the cable car with a “net”, but that too flew back.
Shariq Riaz Khattak a rescue official at the site told Reuters that so far two attempts at rescue had been aborted, and a third would be launched shortly.
He added that a cable 30 feet above the cable car was impeding the operation.
Earlier, he said the rescue mission was complicated due to gusty winds in the area and the fact the helicopters’ rotor blades risked further destabilising the lift. Moreover, sunset in Battagram was expected at 6:48pm.
Similarly, Ghulamullah, chairman of the Allai valley area, told Geo News that “every time the helicopter lowered the rescuer closer to the chairlift, the wind from the helicopter would shake and disbalance the chairlift making the children scream in fear”.
Talking to Geo News, Brigadier (R) Waqar Hassan said arrangements for lighting would be made by the teams on the ground.
He also said suggested that an effort was under way to set up an alternate cable on which a platform can be slided since the helicopter operation was presenting challenges due to the age of the children.
Hassan said the GOC was on the spot and reassured of the operation continuing into the night if need be.
Tanveerur Rehman, a local government official, explained to AFP that “this is a delicate operation that demands meticulous accuracy. The helicopter can not approach the chairlift closely, as its downwash (air pressure) might snap the sole chain supporting it”.
Syed Jawad Ahmed, a former army pilot, gave a similar analysis while speaking to Geo News.
“The television footage clearly shows the helicopter battling against strong winds, struggling to maintain a steady position,” he said, adding that swift winds were a primary factor impeding the commandos’ efforts.
Ahmed further said that such operations could typically be conducted until 5:40pm, as per the standard operating procedures, and could be extended to 6:40 pm in exceptional cases.
He was of the view that a smaller helicopter could potentially execute the task more effectively owing to its inherent stability.
Additionally, Ahmed raised the possibility of employing an MI-17 helicopter for the rescue mission. However, he acknowledged that this option was contingent upon the terrain, which seemed unfavourable given the high altitude and challenging conditions.
Earlier, AC Hussain said: “If the helicopters fail to rescue the passengers, Rescue 1122 teams will make efforts from the ground via a snorkel.
“We have also called locals from Shangla’s Besham who have experience in conducting similar rescue operations near the Diamer Bhasha dam.”
He added that Rescue 1122 teams are meanwhile trying to spread nets under the cable car.
AC Hussain told Dawn.com that the local administration along with Rescue 1122 teams were present at the spot, but due to the height and the hilly terrain, it was not possible for rescue officials to carry out a relief operation.
He said immediately after the incident was reported, a request was sent to the provincial chief secretary for a helicopter to rescue the passengers.
As sunset approached, Rescue 1122 spokesperson Bilal Faizi told Dawn.com that the rescue operation would continue into the night.
“Flashlights, disaster vehicles and [rescue] personnel are present at the site, while rescue authorities and the Pakistan Army are preparing a joint strategy to continue operation at night,” he said.
Student speaks to media from cable car
Talking to Geo News in the morning, Gulfaraz, one of the passengers stuck in the cable car, said two of the students aboard were slipping in an out of unconsciousness.
The 20-year-old said the stuck students were between the ages of 10 and 15 years.
Gulfaraz urged the state authorities to take action keeping “human empathy and human life” in mind. He added, “People in our area are standing here and crying”.
When asked if the students had any food items with them, Gulfaraz replied they did not even have drinking water: “Where will food items come from? […] There is a great need for drinking water.”
He added that his mobile battery was also low while others had a “simple mobile phone”.
Hours later, he spoke to AFP on the phone while still stuck midair. “The evening is coming nearer. Tell us why the helicopters are going back?” he said.
By then, government official Rehman told AFP that several military helicopters flew reconnaissance sorties and an airman was lowered by harness to deliver food, water and medicine.
Meanwhile, Abdul Nasir Khan, a local resident, said while speaking to Reuters, “We are helplessly looking at them but can’t help.”
PM asks authorities to utilise all resources for rescue operation
Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar has directed authorities to immediately rescue the trapped people, Radio Pakistan reported.
It said the premier has directed the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), the KP Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) and all relevant rescue agencies to rescue students and teachers by utilising all resources.
He further instructed that the “safety arrangements on all such chairlifts in the hilly areas” be ensured and directed to immediately close the chairlifts which are in dilapidated condition and do not meet safety standards, the report added.
Radio Pakistan further said that the NDMA has provided coordination support to the PDMA for the rescue of the persons.
Safety audit has been asked from all PDMAs by the NDMA on tourist infrastructure in their respective areas, the report added.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa caretaker Chief Minister Mohammad Azam Khan also took notice of the incident and directed that action be taken on an “emergency basis for the safe rescue of the stuck persons”.
Information Minister Murtaza Solangi said the rescue operation was in “full swing”.
Lack of roads
Iqbal, the school teacher, explained that at least 150 students took the hazardous journey to school by cable car every day due to the lack of road facilities in the area.
“There are no other arrangements,” he lamented, adding that no such incident had occurred previously.
The teacher further said that it had been around eight years since the cable car was installed and it was checked every month.
Separately, DPO Sonia Shamroz highlighted the need for maintaining cable cars and chairlifts in the area because of their frequent use.
She noted that using chairlifts was the usual mode of transport for most children in such “hilly terrains”, which is why maintenance was extremely important.