The Murree tragedy: Exploring the reasons of a deadly situation

Recently, Murree received a snowstorm that caused the loss of 22 people’s lives in their cars stranded in the snow. Almost four feet of snow trapped the vehicles, creating immobility under the -8°C temperature. Soon afterward, Murree was declared a calamity-hit area. Despite heavy snow warnings from the Pakistan Meteorological Department between 6-9 January in Murree and Galiyat, the number of tourists kept on increasing, leading to a total catastrophe.

According to the official figures issued by the office of Chief Minister Punjab, almost 157,665 vehicles had entered the city between Friday and Saturday ( January 6 and 7) on the weekend at the start of the snowfall. The roads of almost half of Murree from Ghora Gali, Bansara Gali, Sunny Bank, Kuldana, Kashmir Point, Jhika Gali, Barian, Nathia Gali, and Darya Gali were reported on TV channels from time to time as jampacked with traffic on the evening of January  7.

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Routes in Murree to Rawalpindi were seen blocked after thousands of vehicles entered the city leaving tourists in a helpless situation. On seeing the situation, a state of emergency was declared by the Punjab government in hospitals, administration offices, and police stations. Murree received a huge number of tourists after 15 to 20 years according to Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry that caused the chaotic situation. Therefore, the roads were forcibly closed from Islamabad to Murree to stop the flow of tourists on January 8.

Emergency military help was initiated on January 8 evening for the stranded vehicles. During the emergency relief, 22 deaths were reported, 10 men, 10 children, and 2 women. They were reported as dying due to hypothermia and a few due to carbon monoxide poisoning because of a long period of running vehicles’ heaters. The blockages of vehicles’ exhaust with snow caused the carbon monoxide to circulate within the vehicles suffocating the passengers.

To facilitate the stranded tourists, five relief camps were set up by the Army at Military College, Jhika Gali, APS Kuldana, Station Supply Depot, and Sunny Bank. The stranded tourists were taken into the relief camps and provided medication with food. The worst traffic jam was observed in the areas mentioned .

Side by side, it was seen that army engineers and troops continued their rescue operation by clearing the roads with heavy machinery and making the traffic movable. The army again came into the crisis and came up with full facilitation. The videos and interviews were heard on different platforms, where people were praising the army and criticizing the local government for not reaching them in time despite reminders.

On the other hand, there are stories of selfishness, where people were stranded in snow for many hours. At that time, the local sellers thought of making money by considering the best time of gaining profit. It was reported and heard on different platforms that a local room at a few hotels, of Rs 3000 per night in regular days, went for Rs 40,000-50,000. A boiled egg was costing Rs 500, and a small pack of biscuits Rs 300. Chain rentals for vehicles’ tyres went to Rs 3000 per car to tow it for a few miles.

Murree is located on the Pir Panjal Range within the Murree Tehsil 70 20 from Islamabad in the northeast. It is a popular hill station of Pakistan with steep hills and valleys with an altitude of 7,400 feet (2,240 meters). It was built in the 19th century by the British as a medical base for its colonial troops. Murree attracts almost one million tourists annually to enjoy the cold pine forests and magnificent mountain scenery just within an hour’s drive away from the capital. 

Such inhumane behaviour was even heard that some women had to survive by selling their jewelry to get a safer shelter. A few exemplary responses from local people are also there, who initiated help by giving shelter to many and provided food and necessities per requirements without any charges. The determination and goodwill gesture of these people are highly appreciated, who stepped forward for saving their fellow citizens at the time of need instead of looking for any favour in return.

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The local administration was heard being blamed on various platforms for not rescuing the stranded people on roads despite calls of emergencies. The government has taken an inquiry on the tragic incident and taken action on the inefficiency and irresponsibility of different administrations’ employees. The tragedy has reflected the lack of preparedness and planning for the citizens.

Eyebrows have been raised on the performance of the disaster management authorities, the district administration, the traffic police, and other government departments. The weather warnings were there from the Met Office, and it is also true that tourists didn’t pay attention to those warnings. Responsibility also falls on the citizens. They should work on their movement before departing to the hilly areas especially in winters. ignorance, irresponsibility towards safety measures, and improper dressing for such a cold area must be kept in mind.

Murree has always been a busy hilly resort with heavy traffic all around the year. This year, the weather warnings were ignored by the administration, the roads towards Murree were not blocked or closed down on these warnings. The citizens were supposed to be informed and stopped as a large number of vehicles were entering the city via the toll plaza that exceeded the parking capacity in Murree. Secondly, another lapse was seen from the administration side as they did not have heavy equipment to clear the roads where fallen trees and piles of snow couldn’t be removed. The rescue operation was initiated the next day in the morning of January 7 by the local administration after the deadly snowstorm, but those were not enough due to lack of handling the crisis, and the Army had to intervene.

On the other side, Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar acted on the negligence of authorities after the investigation and announced Rs 17.6 million as compensation to the deceased families. Action over the inhumane behaviour on raising the prices was also seen. The hotels’ owners found involved in ill practice were placed behind the bars. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) also chipped in the situation by issuing free credits on the cells to those who were out of balance in that situation.

Additionally, the Punjab government has announced to make Murree a separate district within Punjab with 2 new police stations and 2 parking plazas at the busiest spots of Murree. It is a good initiative by the government to come up with more facilitation for the citizens in catering and responding to them in any situation. Now eyes are on the government, how the said initiatives will be implemented.

The voice of people was heard when videos were uploaded and floated from the disaster area on different social platforms. Till then, 155,000 cars were reported by AC Murree as having entered the city where only 35,000 parking spaces were available. Huge chaos, jammed traffic, and families in pitiful and heartbreaking conditions were found stranded on the roads without any help for long.

By leaving stuck cars in the middle of roads by people also made it difficult for the management in clearing the traffic. In a nutshell, the responsibility comes on citizens and on administration together to be vigilant and responsible on their part. The understanding of the issues from both sides will enable them to run the system smoothly and efficiently.

The citizens should make themselves aware of the weather before departing to any hilly area, especially in winter to avoid an unexpected situation. On the larger side, the local administration should be kept vigilant, equipped, trained, and efficient enough to deal with these sorts of conditions.

A strict check and balance is required by the government authorities for the smooth functioning of concerned departments to deal with these sorts of issues in time before converting into a disaster. When the state issues regulations and laws and implements them, then there is no choice for citizens but to follow. So, there is a time to act responsibly and honestly towards one’s’duty for which one is selected and appointed.

Dr. Saira Asad
Dr. Saira Asad
The writer is a PhD from University Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia (UTHM), an award-winning columnist, researcher, and Adjunct Assistant Professor at Riphah International University (Media Sciences Department), Islamabad, Pakistan. She can be reached at [email protected]

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