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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

All passengers rescued from dangling cable car in Pakistan

Two cables broke while the car was carrying eight people, including seven students on their way to school, stranding them hundreds of feet in the air for hours.

By Salman Masood, Christina Goldbaum and Zia ur-Rehman

In a dramatic rescue, Pakistani security forces on Tuesday said they had plucked eight people including several schoolchildren from a stranded cable car left hanging hundreds of feet above a mountain valley.

Video posted on social media showed one person scrambling out of the car and being lifted to safety by a rope attached to a helicopter hovering overhead. As darkness fell, however, helicopter operations had to be suspended, and officials instead employed a zip line to rescue those still trapped, according to the Pakistani military.

The accident occurred around 8:30 a.m. in Allai, in the Battagram district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, when two of the car’s wires broke. The cable car, which travels above a stream, is a regular mode of transport for residents of the mountainous northern region, and the students, including children ages 10 to 15, were headed to a nearby school. The car stopped about 900 feet above the ground, according to the National Disaster Management Authority.

As panic gripped the passengers and their families, they issued urgent pleas for assistance. Authorities sent an army helicopter to the site, and video on local television showed it hovering above the cable car at some distance as a commando slid down a rope and delivered food and water.

But as the helicopter tried to get closer to the cable car, the car seemed to begin shaking heavily, which appeared to make an air rescue difficult.

Before the commando delivered the supplies, one of the passengers told a local TV news network that he and the others had been stuck for more than six hours without food or water. He said that one child with a heart condition had fainted after panicking. “My mobile phone battery is depleting fast,” he said.

The cause of the breakage, which appeared to leave only one cable intact, was unclear. Anwaar-ul Haq Kakar, Pakistan’s interim prime minister, called the accident “alarming” as he ordered the rescue operation.

Kakar instructed the authorities to carry out safety inspections on all private mountain lifts to ensure their safety, according to a statement from his office.

“It is a delicate rescue operation,” Mufti Ghulamullah, the mayor of Allai borough, said in a telephone interview. “With each attempt to bring the rescuer closer to the cable car using the helicopter, the gusts of wind from the rotor would jolt and unsettle the chairlift, causing the children to cry out in fear.”

A remote community watched helplessly.

The incident rattled residents in Pashto, a village of some 30,000 people in the remote Allai valley in northwestern Pakistan.

“They are in front of us but we are helpless — observing them and unable to provide any help,” Mufti Hasan Zaib, a religious scholar whose relative was trapped in the cable car, said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon as he watched the rescue efforts from a nearby hillside.

Around 400 to 500 people use the cable car for commuting every day, residents say. Such locally built lifts, often improvised, are typically powered by petrol or diesel engines and are privately owned.

Maulana Qasim Mehmood, a local religious leader, said the incident was just a small glimpse of the daily vulnerability faced by people in the area. In the valley, home to tens of thousands of people, fundamental necessities like health care, education, transportation and other essential elements of life were absent, he said.

Allai was also badly affected by an earthquake in 2005 that killed more than 80,000 people and injured more than 100,000.

“As beautiful as this valley is, it holds many times more hidden sorrows,” Mehmood said. “The villages in Allai are several decades behind the global development standards.”

In the remote village, the cable car “made people’s lives much easier.”

Pashto is nestled along the mountains of one of the most remote corners of northwestern Pakistan. Little more than a collection of mud-brick homes, the village itself is carved into the top of a hillside overlooking the Allai valley. It is one of the poorest districts in this stretch of Pakistan and for decades was all but cut off from the towns surrounding it.

The nearest functioning hospital is around 90 miles away, residents said. Getting there typically requires tying a sick person or woman in labor onto a traditional bed, carrying them three hours to the closest road and hiring a four-wheel drive vehicle to take them another three hours to the hospital.

“In many cases, people died or women gave birth along the way,” Mehmood said.

The nearest high school is around 4 miles away and, until recently, the journey there was similarly difficult. Students spent two or three hours descending a steep mountainside from the village, crossing a small river and climbing up the side of the opposite mountain. Then they had to walk another 2 miles. Even when they arrived, actually being taught in a classroom was far from certain: Teachers rarely show up to work, if at all.

Around five years ago, engineers from a nearby city agreed to build a cable car in Pashto to help students and others cross the valley, according to Mehmood. Its construction changed village life drastically, he added. The once hourslong journey across the valley took just 10 minutes — and cost around only 10 cents — on the cable car.

“People were desperate to use such services,” Mehmood said. “It made people’s lives much easier.”

Cable cars in the area tend to be relatively ad hoc constructions.

While the design of cable car networks varies by location, making them difficult to compare, many major ones are designed with strict safety regulations in mind, according to Simon Ho, a structural engineer in Britain. On a big cable car network, Ho said rescuers could try to gain access to a gondola along the cables and lower people via ropes, or failing that, send a helicopter.

But access along the cables did not appear to be an option in the Pakistan accident, since it appeared one of the wires had broken. Although the provenance of the cable car is unclear, such transport in the northwestern part of the country tends toward relatively ad hoc construction.

“It’s precarious to say the least,” Ho said, adding that it was unclear to him what safety features were on the cable car. “I don’t know how much load it can stand,” he said, of the rope, adding that a helicopter rescue in heavy winds was a tricky operation. “It’s a delicate situation.”

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