Schoolchildren have hailed their “miracle” rescue after they were saved from a cable car dangling some 900ft (274 metres) above a ravine in Pakistan – saying they have been handed a “second life” after the ordeal, which lasted for more than 12 hours.
Army commandos, aided by civilians, used helicopters, before high winds and falling darkness forced them to be called away, and then a zip line to bring the eight people on board to safety. At least six children, aged between 10 and 16, were inside the apparatus, though accounts from officials differed on whether there were two adults, or one adult and another student, in the cable car.
Fifteen-year-old Osama Sharif said: “I had heard stories about miracles, but I saw a miraculous rescue happening with my own eyes.”
Another survivor, Attaullah Shah, 15, said: “God has granted me a second life.” He told reporters that he had “thought it was my last day and I will be no more”.
Osama had been been heading to school on Tuesday at about 7am local time, where he expected to receive the results of his final exams. It was a journey that normally took minutes. But a cable snapped, leaving the cable car hanging at a precarious angle. “We suddenly felt a jolt, and it all happened so suddenly that we thought all of us are going to die,” the 15-year-old said. “We cried, and tears were in our eyes as we feared the cable car will go down.”
Gul Faraz, aged 20, said he was the one to raise the alarm by ringing his parents. “It is an unforgettable day,” he told reporters, adding that he was unsure whether he would make it home. Faraz called his family first, and then television channel Geo News, whose coverage quickly drew the attention of the world’s media to the drama unfolding in the remote mountains of northern Pakistan.
Another unidentified passenger told a local TV channel that one of the other students on the cable car, who he said has a heart condition, had fainted. He said his own mobile battery was “depleting fast” and he had no means left to contact anyone during the initial moments after the cable snapped. Calls were made to other parents, and Osama said that they tried to reassure the children. “They were telling us ‘Don’t worry, help is coming,’” he said.
Crowds gathered on either side of the ravine, anxiously waiting for news or trying to help in any way they could. “They are in front of us but we are helpless – observing them and unable to provide any help,” Mufti Hasan Zaib, a religious scholar from the village, told The New York Times. One of his relatives was stranded on the cable car.
There were fears that the remaining cable could give way at any time, and cries of “God is Great” arose as children were placed in harnesses and brought down by soldiers using the zip line. “People had been constantly praying because there was a fear that the rope might break. People kept praying until the last person was rescued,” emergency services official Waqar Ahmad said. “Once everyone had been rescued, the families started crying with joy and hugging each other.”
Locally made cable cars are a widely used method of transport in the mountainous Battagram district in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Gliding across steep valleys, they cut down travel time to schools, workplaces and businesses. But they are often poorly maintained.
A teacher, Iqbal, told local media that at least 150 students take that same cable car every day. The teacher explained that because there are no roads, students have no choice but to take the cable car. “There are no other arrangements,” he said.
Relieved to know that Alhamdolillah all the kids have been successfully and safely rescued. Great team work by the military, rescue departments, district administration as well as the local people. 🇵🇰 https://t.co/2gPq2Q51Xi
— Anwaar ul Haq Kakar (@anwaar_kakar) August 22, 2023
Pakistan’s caretaker prime minister, Anwaar ul-Haq Kakar, has expressed concern over the cable car’s failure and urged authorities to conduct safety checks on all private mountain chairlifts.
On Wednesday, police said a number of people had been detained in relation to the cable car incident. Local authorities in the mountainous regions in the northwest also said they would close all cable cars that were believed to be unsafe.
Authorities are preparing to repair the broken cable car, but Faraz urged the government to build new roads to link the village with other areas so that this method of transport is no longer necessary.
Ata Ullah, another rescued student, told reporters that he would steel himself for the next time he has to board a cable car.
“I feel fear in my mind about using the cable car, but I have no other option. I will go to my school again when the cable car is repaired,” he said.