In an unfortunate tragedy on the 7th of January, 22 people lost their lives in freezing temperatures amid extreme weather and heavy snowfall in Murree. Videos spread like wildfire across all social media platforms in which people are seen dead in deserted cars covered with snow. More than 100,000 cars had entered Murree to enjoy the snowfall but the situation quickly took a deadly turn.
Traffic jams were aggravated by the heavy snowfall that occurred overnight, which resulted in road bottlenecks and blockages. In some places, the snowstorm and extreme winds uprooted trees that had fallen on the roads and in one instance, on some vehicles.
Tourists passed away in their cars as they were trapped due to the massive accumulation of snow.
Despite a severe weather warning by the Met Office, the local management of Rawalpindi and Islamabad failed to place adequate safety measures to prevent hundreds of thousands of visitors from entering Murree in dangerous and unstable weather.
On January 5, the MET Office had warned of heavy snowfall in all hilly areas including Murree, Naran, Kaghan, Galiyat, Neelum Valley, etc.
On the 7th of January, roads were choked with traffic from thousands of visitors when a blizzard dumped four feet of snow. Deaths occurred due to carbon monoxide poisoning as people who had been stuck in their cars left their heaters running overnight. With the car exhaust likely clogged from the snow, this resulted in the poisonous gas filling up the vehicles, and since carbon monoxide has no odour or detectable signs, the individuals passed away, unaware of what was happening.
According to the official report on the tragedy, between January 3 and 7, 162,000 vehicles entered the city. Trees dropped in 16 different areas, obstructing the roads and cutting off traffic flow, said the report.
Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said that visitors had flocked to the hill station in such large numbers “for the first time in 15 to 20 years which created a big crisis”. He said Rawalpindi and Islamabad administrations, along with police, had been working to rescue those stranded, while five platoons of the Pakistan Army, as well as Rangers and Frontier Corps, were called on an emergency basis.
Soldiers rescued people from at least 24,000 vehicles stranded due to the severe weather conditions in Murree, officials said. Other tourists stuck in the region were given blankets and food.
A four-member committee had been created to investigate the cause of the Murree tragedy. They have documented the statements of administrative and operational officers and staff connected to the incident. The team also recorded the statements of the front-line personnel of Rescue 1122, who were supposed to be deployed at the site to deal with a crisis. The probe showed that drivers and other staff were also found to be absent from their duty despite the several warnings issued by the Met Office about a severe snowstorm being imminent.
The ongoing inquiry by the investigation committee into the tragic deaths on January 7 revealed that of 29 snow ploughing vehicles, 20 were all parked in one location. The committee had earlier discovered that the relevant departments, including district administration and disaster management authorities, did not coordinate to develop a combined plan of action to prevent a crisis following the severe weather warnings issued.
It has been said that the employees of the Forest and Wildlife Department could not provide satisfactory answers to the committee’s questions. The probe further showed that the district administration had sent back around 50,000 vehicles from Murree’s entry points that day.
Meanwhile, a hearing was held in the Lahore High Court on a petition requesting an investigation into the negligence shown by these government institutions in regards to the case.
The secretary of the Tourism Department and the director-general of the National Disaster Management Authority were summoned in court. Aside from them, the Rawalpindi commissioner, deputy commissioner, chief traffic officer, and the Regional police officer were also ordered to appear in court. As of now, Punjab Chief Minister Sardar Usman Khan Buzdar has said that 15 officials have been removed from their posts, keeping in mind the recommendations of the inquiry committee investigating the Murree tragedy. In addition, notices for court appearances on January 19 were sent to the association of hotel owners in Murree.
Furthermore, the municipal administration has undertaken a huge anti-encroachment operation at the hill station.
From the hotel owners who reportedly charged 30k to 60k for a single night stay during the worst time of the snowstorm, to the officials sleeping on duty and the ones that allowed such a huge influx of vehicles to enter the region at all, this tragedy was an ethical, administrative and governmental failure of massive proportions.