At least 22 people, including 10 children, have died in Pakistan’s popular hill station Murree after heavy overnight snowfall caused traffic jams that trapped tourists in their vehicles, with many freezing to death and some likely dying due to asphyxiation from car fumes.
Rescue 1122, an emergency service in the country’s Punjab province, said the victims included an assistant sub-inspector of Islamabad police and seven members of his family.
Punjab chief minister Usman Buzdar declared a state of emergency in hospitals, police stations, administration offices and Rescue 1122 services.
He has directed authorities to open the government’s offices and rest houses for stranded tourists.
The Pakistan Meteorological Department had predicted on 5 January that heavy snowfall would hit Murree from 6 to 9 January, including a warning of heavy snowfall in the hill station that was likely leading to road closures.
While authorities blamed the disaster on a huge influx of tourists who may not have considered the weather forecasts, the government’s critics say officials were ill-equipped to handle such a situation.
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.
— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) January 8, 2022
In a video message, interior minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said tourists had flocked to Murree in such numbers “for the first time in 15 to 20 years, which created a big crisis”, and that around 1,000 cars were stuck on the hill station.
He said the military had been mobilised to clear roads and rescue people still trapped.
“Where machinery can’t reach, troops have been moved and they are clearing traffic and opening roads,” a statement from the Pakistani military said.
Mr Ahmed added that the government was forced to close the road from Islamabad to Murree until at least 9pm on Sunday, news agency Press Trust of India reported.
Chief traffic officer Taimoor Khan said in a statement that the entry of vehicles into the hill station had been banned since Friday night, when the snow storm struck, and cars were being diverted from other entrances.
Prime minister Imran Khan expressed sorrow and regret over the deaths, spokesperson Shahbaz Gill wrote on twitter.
“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,” Mr Khan later said in a tweet.
Meanwhile, politicians in opposition parties, including PML-N president Shehbaz Sharif, have criticised the government’s handling of the soaring number of tourists.
“Where was the government all the while? What arrangements did it make to deal with such an influx? Incompetence is fast turning into criminality. Prior arrangements & round-the-clock supervision were the normal SOPs in the past,” Mr Sharif tweeted.
PML-N vice-president Maryam Nawaz tweeted: “The job of governments is not only to count tourists but also to make advance arrangements and security measures for them... These deaths are not due to snowfall but due to government negligence.”