ISLAMABAD: A holiday trip to the Pakistani mountainside town of Murree to view the winter snowfall turned into a nightmare for Muhammad Bilal on Friday.
Bilal, 21, was among tens of thousands of visitors who had thronged to Murree to see unusually heavy snowfall and ended up stuck in a major traffic jam on snow-clogged roads.
At around 4 p.m., Bilal, from Mardan in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, called his family and said his group, which comprised himself, two relatives and a friend, were returning home because of the unmanageable snowfall. In another call at 9 p.m., Bilal told his family their car was stuck in a traffic jam.
“His last words were that they will ring back as soon as the road opened,” Muhammad Ghafoor, Bilal’s father, told Arab News via phone from his hometown of Katlang. On Saturday morning, when Bilal’s mother called his cellphone to get an update on his whereabouts, a stranger picked up and told her that her son had been found dead in his car.
At least 22 people died in Murree in freezing temperatures on Friday night. Police say some of the victims froze to death in their cars, while others died from asphyxiation after inhaling exhaust fumes in snow-bound vehicles.
“This was so shocking and unbelievable that my wife almost fainted,” Ghafoor said. “Then we rang the numbers of the other persons who were with Bilal on the trip and got the same reply from another person ... their bodies had been discovered after they had not responded to multiple knocking on the car windows.”
The Pakistan Meteorological Department had predicted heavy snowfall in Murree and the Galiyat mountainous regions from Jan. 6 to Jan. 9. Despite appeals by authorities to postpone travel plans due to bad weather and roadblocks, tens of thousands of snow tourists arrived in Murree, 64 km (40 miles) northeast of the capital Islamabad, in the past two days.
The resort town, built by the British in the 19th century as a sanatorium for colonial troops, clings to the sides of steep hills and its narrow roads are jammed even in good weather.
Government critics say local authorities were ill-equipped to handle the annual influx of snow-tourists but did not prepare to deal with an emergency amid unusually heavy snowfall.
They say even though authorities warned last weekend that too many vehicles were trying to enter Murree, they failed to discourage hordes of day trippers from going up the mountain from the capital.
It was only on Saturday, after the first reports emerged that people may have died, that the administration started to clear the roads and begin rescue work. Troops were also called in to assist.
The rescue operation was still in progress on Sunday afternoon. In a tweet on Saturday, Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has personally promoted tourism to Murree and its surrounding areas, appeared to blame the tourists for negligence.
“Unprecedented snowfall & rush of people proceeding without checking weather conditions caught district admin unprepared,” Khan said on Twitter.
Ghafoor blamed the government. “We accept it as the will of Allah,” he said of his son’s death. “But the government should have warned the tourists about severe weather conditions and closed the entry to the hill station to avoid the traffic congestion.”
Zahoor Ahmed, whose cousin was married to another victim, Sohail Ahmed, echoed the sentiment. “We are not putting blame on anyone but a timely response could have saved many lives,” he told Arab News. Like Bilal’s family, the Ahmeds found out about Sohail’s death because a stranger picked up his cellphone and informed them that he had been found dead with three others in a car.