By Riaz Khan and Munir Ahmed
The rescue of six school children and two adults who were plucked from a broken cable car that was dangling precariously hundreds of meters (yards) above a steep gorge was a miracle, a survivor said Wednesday. The teenager said he and the others felt repeatedly that death was imminent during the 16-hour ordeal.
The eight passengers were pulled from the cable car in several rescue attempts Tuesday. One of the youngest children was grabbed by a commando attached to a helicopter by rope. A video of the rescue shows the rope swaying wildly as the child, secured by a harness, is pulled into the helicopter.
Because helicopters could not fly after sunset, rescuers constructed a makeshift chairlift from a wooden bed frame and ropes and approached the cable car using the one cable that was still intact, local police chief Nazir Ahmed said. In the final stage of the risky operation, just before midnight Tuesday, rescuers and volunteers pulled a rope to lower the chairlift to the ground. Joyful shouts of “God is great” erupted as the chairlift came into view, carrying two boys in traditional white robes.
“I had heard stories about miracles, but I saw a miraculous rescue happening with my own eyes," said 15-year-old Osama Sharif, one of the six boys who were in the cable car.
Locally made cable cars are a widely used form of transportation in the mountainous Battagram district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Gliding across steep valleys, they cut down travel time but often are poorly maintained and accident-prone. Every year, people die or are injured while traveling in them.
On Wednesday, police arrested Gul Zarin, the owner of the cable car, on charges of ignoring safety measures, local police said. On Wednesday, a popular independent media outlet, Pakistani Geo TV, broadcast interviews with two survivors, Rizwan Ullah and Gul Faraz, who said they had seen death so closely that they would not be able to forget this ordeal for years.
On Tuesday morning, the six boys got into the cable car to travel to their school across the ravine from their village. Osama said he was headed to school to receive the result of his final exam.
“We suddenly felt a jolt, and it all happened so suddenly that we thought all of us are going to die,” Osama said in a telephone interview.
He said some of the children and the two adults had cellphones and started making calls. Worried parents tried to reassure the children.
“They were telling us don’t worry, help is coming,” he said. After several hours, the passengers saw helicopters flying in the air, and at one point a commando using a rope came very close to the cable car.
But the choppers also added an element of danger. The air currents churned up by the whirling blades risked weakening the only cable preventing the cable car from crashing to the bottom of the river canyon.
“We cried, and tears were in our eyes, as we feared the cable car will go down,” Osama said.
Eventually a helicopter plucked one of the youngest children from the cable car, he said. Then, the makeshift chairlift arrived, first to give them food and water, followed by the rescue.
Ahmed, the local police chief, said the children received oxygen as a precaution before being handed over to their parents, many of whom burst into tears of joy.
An estimated 30,000 people live in Battagram, and nearly 8,000 gathered to watch the rescue operation, with many volunteering to help.
On Wednesday, authorities were preparing to repair the broken cable car.
Ata Ullah, another rescued student, said cable cars are the only way residents can reach offices and schools.
“I feel fear in my mind about using the cable car, but I have no other option. I will go to my school again when the cable car is repaired,” he said.
In 2017, 10 people were killed when a cable car fell hundreds of meters (yards) into a ravine in the popular mountain resort of Murree after its cable broke.
Updated August 23, 2023 at 5:40 a.m. ET with latest details.