In Pakistan’s popular hill station Murree, at least 22 people including 10 children, have died after heavy overnight snowfall caused traffic jams that trapped tourists in their vehicles, with many freezing to death and some dying perhaps due to asphyxiation from car fumes.
An emergency service Rescue 1122 that serves the Punjab Province in Pakistan, said at least 22 people have died, including an assistant sub-inspector of Islamabad police and 7 members of his family.
Punjab chief minister Usman Buzdar has declared Murree calamity-hit and imposed a state of emergency in hospitals, police stations, administration offices, and Rescue 1122 services.
Mr Buzdar has directed authorities to open the government’s offices and rest houses for stranded tourists.
The Pakistan Meteorological Department had predicted on 5 January that heavy snowfall would hit Murree from 6 to 9 January, including a warning of heavy snowfall in the hill station likely leading to road closures.
While authorities blamed the disaster on the huge influx of tourists who failed to consider the weather forecasts, the government’s critics say officials were ill-equipped to handle an emergency situation.
In a video message, interior minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said tourists had flocked to Murree in such numbers “for the first time in 15 to 20 years, which created a big crisis,” and that around 1,000 cars were stuck on the hill station.
Mr Ahmed said the military has been mobilised to clear roads and rescue people still trapped.
“Where machinery can’t reach, troops have been moved and they are clearing traffic and opening roads,” a statement by the Pakistani military noted.
He added that the government was forced to close the road from Islamabad to Murree till at least 9pm on Sunday, the news agency Press Trust of India reported.
Chief traffic officer Taimoor Khan said in a statement that the entry of vehicles into the hill station has been banned since Friday night, when the snow storm struck, and cars were being diverted from other entrances.
Prime minister Imran Khan expressed sorrow and regret over the deaths, spokesperson Shahbaz Gill wrote on twitter.
“Unprecedented snowfall & rush of ppl proceeding without checking weather conditions caught district admin unprepared. Have ordered inquiry & putting in place strong regulation to ensure prevention of such tragedies,” Mr Khan later said in a tweet.
Politicians in opposition parties, including PML-N president Shehbaz Sharif, have criticized the government’s handling of the influx of tourists.
Mr Sharif tweeted “Where was the government all the while? What arrangements did it make to deal with such an influx? Incompetence is fast turning into criminality. Prior arrangements & round-the-clock supervision were the normal SOPs in the past.”