The Murree snowstorm tragedy, in which 23 lives were lost, has been widely mourned in the country. While the media has held the local administration responsible for the death of innocent people, voices have also been heard blaming the tourists for ignoring the risks of driving to the hills in severe weather conditions.
There are many complex factors which combined to perpetrate the unfortunate happening in Murree. The visiting tourists took an unnecessary risk as they went there unprepared in total disregard of weather warnings on the electronic and social media. A mountain drive is not easy in the best of times and it becomes particularly hazardous during snowfall. And mind you, it was not just snowfall but a snowstorm about which advance warnings had been sounded. Yet, families thought it ok to drive the Murree hills, without enough food, water, medicines and essential protective garments.
Overcrowding made matters worse. Murree during the holidays is jam-packed with tourists and their vehicles. This time around it was worse with over a hundred thousand cars creating horrific traffic snarls and blockades. For miles, vehicles were stranded on the narrow roadways.
It is reported that law-enforcement agencies tried to stop the motorists but they defied all orders and rode ahead merrily into the tragedy waiting to happen. The National Highways Authority is on record as saying that it somehow managed to shut down the main Murree Expressway, but cars continued coming in through other entry points, including the Old Murree Road, rural access roads from Angoori and Simli Dam sides, the main road coming into Jhikagali from Abbottabad and another from AJK. Besides, there are narrow, circuitous, rural routes well known to the local people.
In the midst of the unfolding tragedy, the behaviour of the local population added to the misery of the stranded tourists. There are reports of some locals dumping snow on the roads to hold up vehicles and then blackmailing people in need of rescue. The locals are well aware of twists and turns on the treacherous hilly routes and equipped with winches and snow chains know how to get the traffic moving. It is also reported that hoteliers demanded Rs30,000-40,000 for rooms that are normally let for a couple of thousands.
At the same time, there are heart-warming reports of people who rushed to the rescue of the tourists in distress. But for this timely help, the consequences could be much worse. In the ultimate analysis, it is the local administration whose responsibility was to ensure the safety of the tourists. But the local authorities failed to rise to the occasion.
On January 9, the Punjab government formed a committee to investigate details of the Murree tragedy. The main finding of the inquiry report is that the local administration lacked coordination and failed to act on time. It has also been revealed that the National Disaster Management Authority sent a letter on January 5 containing instructions to divert Murree-bound traffic. The committee noted that these warnings were sent to the director general Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) in Punjab. But the DG had relinquished charge on January 3 and the post was vacant.
Although the NDMA warning was shared on the PDMA WhatsApp group, which included both Rawalpindi commissioner and DC, these advisories were read too late leaving no time for planning and preparation. The committee also examined the Twitter accounts, websites and Facebook pages of the Rawalpindi DC, police, traffic police, PDMA and the National Highway Authority after the weather advisory of January 5. But no warning was issued to citizens not to travel to Murree by any of the entities prior to January 7.
It is said that more than 32,000 vehicles had entered Murree and 22,460 left on January 7. According to the report, that means that 10,000 vehicles were trapped on that day in addition to an estimated 10,000 vehicles of Murree residents and businesses. The request to close the entry into Murree from Islamabad was made by the tehsil administration at 5pm but it was implemented with a delay of almost five hours, which further worsened the situation. While a traffic plan was issued on December 31, 2021, it was silent as to what the operating procedure would be to stem the flow of vehicles. It also did not detail the steps required to clear the roads in case of a blizzard or heavy snowfall. A shocking disclosure is that the Rescue 1122 staff refused to go out into the snow further down the road towards Barrian from the Kuldana roundabout to rescue the trapped people. They complained that they were refused facilitation by the staff and asked to wait out the storm in their cars. The inquiry has revealed that during the blizzard, the entire administrative, rescue and support machinery made little attempt to rescue the stranded tourists.
Following the inquiry report, disciplinary action has been taken against some of the negligent officials. But that is not enough. Murree is a tourist favourite which requires putting in place strong administrative machinery capable of dealing with snowstorms and similar emergencies at a moment’s notice.