Students trapped in Battagram cable-car rescued after 14 hours operation

  • Army Aviation, SSG commandos, PAF helicopters, Rescue 1122 carry out rescue operation
  • PM, Bugti laud teamwork by military, rescue departments, district admin as well as locals

ISLAMABAD/BATTAGRAM: All seven students and their teacher, trapped in a cable-car in Allai tehsil, Battagram district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, were rescued as a result of an operation spanned over 14 hours by Pakistan Army Aviation officers, Special Service Group (SSG) commandos, Rescue 1122 and locals.

Caretaker Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti confirmed that the rescue operation was completed and all the trap students had been rescued.

Caretaker Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti wrote on the social media platform ‘X’ (formerly Twitter): “thanked Almighty Allah for safe rescue and evacuation of seven schoolchildren and a teacher who were trapped in dangling cable-car in the hilly area of Battagram District. All appreciation for our valiant armed forces personnel for their selflessness and determination in carrying out this complex operation.

He also shared the names of trapped individuals: Irfan son of Amraiz, Niaz Mohammad son of Umar Zaib, Rizwan son of Abdul Qayyum, Gulfraz son of Hakeem Dad, Sher Nawaz son of Shah Nazar, Ibrar son of Abdul Ghani, Attaullah son of Kifiatullah and Usama son of Muhammad Sharif.

Interim Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar also confirmed the development on social media platform X (formerly Twitter).

“Relieved to know that all the kids have been successfully and safely rescued. Great teamwork by the military, rescue departments, district administration as well as the local people,” he said.

The incident had occurred early in the morning — estimated between 7am and 8am — when six students and two locals were on the way to school.

The successful completion of the operation was first confirmed in a statement issued by Rescue 1122 and later by the military’s media affairs wing.

The footage showed the rescuer hanging from a helicopter pulling out one of the students trapped in the Battagram chairlift by using the harness. The student was safely shifted to the ground after hours-long rescue efforts.

The schoolchildren got stuck when two wires of the cable-car snapped, Assistant Commissioner (AC) Jawad Hussain said, adding 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 remained dangling in the middle of a deep ravine surrounded by towering mountains and a rocky surface along with the Jhangri river for hours.

Initially, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) estimated that the passengers were stuck at a height of 1,000-2,000ft. But after the rescue operation ended, the ISPR said they were stranded at a height of 600ft.

Hours-long rescue operation

The rescue operation to retrieve the stuck passengers began in the morning, but the first two children could not be rescued before late in the evening.

They were rescued by the armed forces amid rough weather and following multiple attempts shortly before sunset as part of an operation that saw the use of four helicopters.

After rescuing two children, the air rescue operation was suspended due to windy weather and darkness. The children were rescued after the fourth attempt to airlift them.

The Pakistan Army Aviation and SSG teams also decided to continue the chairlift rescue operation from the ground.

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.

GOC SSG led the rescue operation and a last attempt was made to pull out the trapped students and a teacher via helicopter.

All arrangements have been made to continue the operation in the nighttime. Moreover, the SSG commandoes provided food and medicines to the people trapped in the chairlift.

According to Radio Pakistan, the army took the assistance of local cable crossings experts for this operation.

Later, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said three more children had been rescued.

So far, five children had been rescued, the ISPR statement issued around 9:45pm — more than 12 hours after the rescue operation began — said.

Separately, Deputy Commissioner Tanveerur Rehman told AFP that “zipline experts and other civil and military experts and local cable operators are on the spot and helping us in the rescue operation”.

State broadcaster Radio Pakistan, meanwhile, reported that food and drinks were being supplied to the stranded people via a small chairlift dolly.

After the operation concluded, an ISPR statement termed it “extremely complicated and difficult”.

It said the general commanding officer of the Pakistan Army’s Special Services Group (SSG) led it and the unit’s sling team rescued the stranded people.

“They retrieved all the people stuck in the chairlift and moved them to a safe location,” the statement read, adding that the operation was “expeditiously” initiated by the Pakistan Army Aviation and SSG on the directions of the army chief and later joined by the SSG’s sling team.

“The Pakistan Army Aviation provided complete technical assistance to the sling team, which made the successful completion of the operation possible.”

A helicopter of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) was also used in rescue efforts, the ISPR said, praising Pakistan Army and PAF pilots for their expertise during the operation.

Impediments to rescue efforts

Earlier, Shariq Riaz Khattak, a rescue official at the site of the incident, told Reuters that initially two attempts at rescue were aborted.

He added that a cable 30 feet above the dangling cable car was impeding the operation.

He explained that the rescue mission was complicated due to gusty winds in the area and the fact the helicopters’ rotor blades risked further destabilising the lift.

Similarly, tehsil chairman Ghulamullah 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”.

DC Tanveerur Rehman explained to AFP that “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”.

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.

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.

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 during the conversation that took place in the evening.

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 had earlier directed authorities to immediately rescue the trapped people, Radio Pakistan reported.

It said the premier has directed the 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”.

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 Jadoon 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.

Earlier, Commissioner Hazara Sultan Aamir said he has contacted the KP govt and Pakistan Army for helicopter support to rescue the stranded schoolchildren and teacher.

Exclusively talking to ARY News, from the stuck chairlift, a man named Gulfaraz said seven schoolchildren and another man are stuck in the chairlift.

He said they are stuck midair in the chairlift from 7 in the morning and two ropes of the chairlift have already been broken. We are still waiting for help, he added.

 

 

 

Saleem Jadoon
Saleem Jadoon
News Editor at Pakistan Today

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