ISLAMABAD: At least 21 people, including nine children, have died in freezing temperatures after being stuck in their vehicles in the Pakistani hill station of Murree, government and rescue officials said on Saturday, as travelers were stranded overnight on roads in a crisis that has trapped thousands.
Tens of thousands of people arrived in Murree over the past two days to see the snow, despite appeals by authorities to postpone plans because of bad weather and roadblocks.
The Pakistan Meteorological Department had predicted heavy snowfall in Murree and the Galiyat mountain region from Jan. 6 to Jan. 9.
On Saturday, the local administration declared Murree, 64 kilometers northeast of the capital Islamabad, “calamity hit,” with long lines of cars stuck in the resort town after a snowstorm making the roads impassable, stranding motorists without food and water in the freezing cold.
According to a list issued by the Rescue 1122 emergency service, 21 people died in the freezing weather, including nine children.
Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed grief and ordered an inquiry into the incident.
“Shocked and upset at the tragic deaths of tourists on the road to Murree,” he said in a tweet.
“Unprecedented snowfall and a rush of people proceeding without checking weather conditions caught the district administration unprepared. I have ordered an inquiry and strong regulations to ensure the prevention of such tragedies.”
Earlier in the day, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said that it was the first time in about 20 years that so many people had flocked to the hill station.
“Between 16 and 19 people died in their vehicles,” he said in a video message. “Now we are allowing vehicles carrying blankets and food.”
The minister said that the Rawalpindi and Islamabad administrations and police were working to rescue the stranded, and that five army platoons, Rangers and Frontier Corps had also been called in.
The army announced on Saturday afternoon that it had established four camps in the area, a “control division” and rescue centers.
“Heavy machinery from the Murree army engineers division and Frontier Works Organization is working without any pause to assist people who are struck,” the army’s media wing said. “Troops are out in the field. Where machinery can’t reach, troops have been moved and they are clearing traffic and opening roads.”
On Friday evening, the Islamabad administration announced that it was closing roads leading to Murree for the rest of the weekend “in the public interest.”
For hours overnight and well after daybreak on Saturday, thousands of cars lined the snow-clogged roadway as drivers grew increasingly desperate and exasperated by what appeared to be a slow response by authorities.
Officials in Rawalpindi, which is adjacent to Islamabad, said on Saturday that more than 23,000 stranded vehicles had been evacuated from Murree.
“Around 1000 are still stranded. The district administration is working round the clock to evacuate the remaining vehicles safely,” the Deputy Commissioner’s Office in Rawalpindi said in a Twitter post on Saturday morning.
A strong westerly wind hit Pakistan’s western and northern regions earlier this week, bringing heavy rain and snowfall. It is forecast to remain until Sunday.