THAKOT, Pakistan: Military helicopters and zipline experts rescued four children Tuesday from a group of eight people trapped for hours in a stricken cable car high above a remote Pakistan valley, but officials said nightfall was hindering efforts to save the rest. The daring rescue began with a helicopter plucking two children to safety as daylight faded, but the chopper was forced back to base in the dark. Then rescuers used the cable keeping the gondola from plunging into the valley as a zipline to rescue two more children.
“Zipline experts and other civil and military experts and local cable operators are on the spot and helping us in the rescue operation,” said deputy commissioner Tanveer Ur Rehman. “Four students have been rescued.” “The rescue operation is continuing but helicopters can’t fly due to the dark,” said Bilal Faizi, from the Pakistan emergency service Rescue 1122. Six children and two adults spent almost 12 hours trapped inside the chairlift at a height of up to 350 m in a mountainous part of northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
A video of the first rescue showed a teenager in a harness hanging at the bottom of a swinging rope under a helicopter as crowds cheered with relief. “Pakistan army and civil administration have set up a temporary camp on a mountaintop where first aid is being provided,” he added. The six children had been on their way to school when the chairlift broke down at around 7:00 am (0200 GMT) midway through its journey, hanging above the lush green Allai valley. Residents used mosque loudspeakers to alert neighborhood officials of the emergency and hundreds of people gathered on both sides of the ravine — hours away from any sizeable town — to watch the drama unfold.
Several military helicopters had earlier in the day flown sorties and an airman was lowered by a harness to deliver food, water and medicine, Rehman, the official, told AFP. “This is a delicate operation that demands meticulous accuracy. The helicopter cannot approach the chairlift closely, as its downwash (air pressure) might snap the sole chain supporting it,” he said. Headmaster Ali Asghar Khan told AFP by phone that the children were teenage boys and students at his government high school Battangi Pashto.
“The school is located in a mountainous area and there are no safe crossings, so it’s common to use the chairlift,” Khan said. “The parents are gathered at the site of the chairlift. What can they do? They are waiting for the rescue officials to get their children out. We are all worried.” Abid Ur Rehman, a teacher from another school in the area, said around 500 people had gathered to watch the rescue mission. “Parents and women are crying for the safety of their children,” he told AFP.
Syed Hammad Haider, a senior Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial official, said the gondola was hanging about 1,000 to 1,200 feet above the ground. Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar issued a directive for all chairlifts in mountainous areas to be inspected and for those that are not “safety compliant” to be immediately closed.
Cable cars that carry passengers — and sometimes even cars — are common across the northern areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and Gilgit-Baltistan, and are vital in connecting villages and towns in areas where roads cannot be built. In 2017, 10 people were killed when a chairlift cable broke, sending passengers plunging into a ravine in a mountain hamlet near the capital Islamabad. – AFP