How Children Stranded for 15 Hours in a Dangling Cable Car Were Rescued

From a Wall Street Journal story by Saeed Shah headlined “How Children Stranded for 15 Hours in a Dangling Cable Car Were Rescued”:

During the first hour they were stranded in a broken cable car, the six children and two adults dangling 1,000 feet in the air had no way of speaking to their families because the cellphone signal was down in their remote part of northern Pakistan.

As the makeshift cable car had reached about the midway point carrying passengers straight across between two mountains, one of the two cables it ran along snapped. That left the car dangling at an angle from the remaining cable. Doors of the small, cramped, car swung open at one end, leaving the children there inches away from the long drop to the floor of the ravine below.

The children were on their way to school, on what is a daily commute for locals from their mountaintop village, dressed in their traditional uniform of white baggy trousers and a long shirt. In this poor part of the country, roads are lacking, so communities string up rudimentary cable cars, powered by a diesel motor, to move people and goods across the mountains.

The ordeal continued for more than 15 hours, leaving a nation on edge late into the night as local news channels carried live coverage of army and civilian rescue efforts. During that time, at least one of the trapped children fainted.

Gul Faraz, a 20-year-old man, was the oldest on board. The children were very scared, he told Pakistan’s Geo News after he made it back to his village Wednesday. And so was he. Cellphone signals come and go in that remote part of Pakistan, and at that time, there was no service available.

“When the cable broke, our hopes for living ended,” said Faraz. “I thought of God.”

On the ground, the local operator of the cable car alerted villagers. The loudspeakers on mosques in the area announced the accident. Locals quickly gathered on both mountain sides, said Shafiq Ullah, a 29-year-old resident of the village.

It was around 8:30 a.m. when the cellphone signal returned, he said. Ullah dialed the 1122 rescue service.

“It was such a dangerous situation,” said Ullah. “It was clear that the rescue would need outside help.”

The trouble was that the nearest rescue team, from a civilian emergency service known as 1122 after their phone number, was at Battagram town, in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. That was a four-hour drive for the rescue party over broken mountainside roads, preventing them from reaching the site of the cable car until the afternoon, said Bilal Faizi, a spokesman for the 1122 service.

By that time, the pleas of desperate local people on the ground, recorded on cellphone videos and posted on social media, caught the attention of Pakistan’s two dozen news channels, turning the accident first into a national event and then into an international story.

The national authorities swung into action. The army’s helicopter division was called in, as was the military’s special forces unit.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Anwaar ul Haq Kakar, told officials that he wanted to be kept updated, resulting in interruptions to his scheduled meetings every few minutes with developments from the field, Information Minister Murtaza Solangi said Wednesday.

By 1 p.m., helicopters had arrived, said Faizi, the rescue service spokesman. A special forces commando rappelled down a rope from a helicopter and was able to deliver some medicine and water to the stranded passengers. But the situation was difficult for helicopters.

The downdraft created by the helicopters’ rotors posed a danger: The gusts could shake the car loose from the remaining cable. Nevertheless, the rescuers persisted for hours, with several unsuccessful sorties to get a rope to the stranded group. They were hampered by another disconnected cable running above the car which prevented the helicopters from getting close enough.

“We took time to figure out what would be the safest option, for those stranded and the rescuers, and it was decided that helicopters would be best,” said Shariq Riaz Khattak, who led the civilian rescuers dispatched from the 1122 service.

The breakthrough came in the late afternoon, when a helicopter changed angle and managed to lower a harness down to the cable car. One child strapped it on and jumped off the car. Hanging on the end of the rope, he was ferried to safety. But, by then, it was late and the helicopters couldn’t operate in the dark.

The remaining children faced the terrifying prospect of spending the night suspended in the air.

The community stepped up. Locals who string up those types of cable cars were called in. The only way of now reaching the group was by shimmying along the wire. That involved a rescuer attaching a pulley to the remaining good cable and hoisting himself along the wire by hand. Then a long trailing rope attached to the rescuer, held by those on the mountainside, would be used to pull him back.

A local volunteered to go first, and he was able to get some supplies to the car. Then soldiers and civilian rescuers used the same method to inch toward the children. The plan was for the children to be attached with another pulley to wire, roped to the rescuer, and then pulled across to safety. Khattak, the rescuer, estimated that this distance was around 1,000 feet.

It took four hours to get all the children and the adults out in this manner, with the crowd erupting in cheers and cries of “God is great” when the last was on land, just before 11 p.m. The children were given medical checkups immediately on the mountainside, but all were fine.

“You could see the anxiety written on the faces of the children as they were reaching the mountainside,” said Ullah, the local resident. “But once they touched land, that turned into joy.”

It could easily have turned out to be a tragedy. In 2017, a cable car operating in the Murree hills outside the capital Islamabad, fell, killing 12 people.

Kakar, the prime minister, said Wednesday that combined civilian and military rescue had united the nation.

“These children controlled their nerves in a heroic way,” Kakar told business leaders in the southern port of Karachi. “They have brought us together.”

The drama also brought national introspection. The prime minister said that Pakistan is a poor country, where shaky infrastructure becomes a danger to lives. He ordered that all such private cable cars, on which a trip typically costs a few cents, be inspected. The operator of the stricken cable car was jailed on Wednesday for negligence, police said.

Faraz, the 20-year-old man who was rescued, called for his area to be given roads, so that the cable car would no longer be necessary.

“We don’t have roads or a school on our side of the mountain,” he said. “Cable cars are bad. Every place should have roads.”

Waqar Gillani contributed to this article.

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