How the Pakistan Cable Car Passengers Were All Rescued Safely

It was Tuesday morning, and Usama Sharif, who is 20 but still a 10th grader, shouldered his backpack, left his mud-brick home in a mountainside village in northwest Pakistan and walked down a dirt path to the cable car that would take him across the deep mountain valley to his school, his father said.

For years, the cable car had offered a lifeline to the otherwise isolated village, Pashto, deep in the mountains of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, easing an otherwise arduous journey for students to attend school or for sick members of the community to reach a hospital.

But just minutes into the cable car ride, the daily journey across the gorge turned into a brush with disaster. Two of the cables supporting the car snapped, leaving Mr. Sharif and seven other passengers, including several schoolchildren, suspended hundreds of feet in the air.

As the car dangled precariously, military crews began a dramatic rescue lasting some 12 heart-pounding hours, plucking two people off the car via a rope attached to a helicopter and then, as night fell, using a zip lineto bring the rest to safety.

The operation was “very difficult and grueling,” the Pakistani military said, adding that the “unparalleled skill and efficiency” shown by the rescuers had helped to provide a happy ending.

“All the kids have been successfully and safely rescued,” Pakistan’s interim prime minister, Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, posted on social media just before 11 p.m. local time. “Great team work by the military, rescue departments, district administration as well as the local people,” he added.

Cable cars have become relatively regular modes of transport for residents of the mountainous northern region of Pakistan, where journeys along switchback roads climbing steep slopes or descending into deep valleys can take hours to cover just a few miles as the crow flies. The makeshift system in Pashto, strung across the Allai valley, was largely typical — a modest car looking like the weathered hull of a rickshaw and rusted cables stretching from peak to peak.

The passengers on Tuesday were undertaking a mundane journey; the children on board, ages 10 to 15, were headed to a nearby school. But about 8:30 a.m., the car jerked to a halt, hanging precariously by what seemed like a single cable.

As panic gripped the passengers and their families realized what had happened, they issued urgent pleas for assistance, residents said. By the afternoon, the authorities had sent an army helicopter to the site, and local television showed it hovering above the cable car as a commando slid down a rope and delivered supplies.

Before that, one passenger had told a local TV network, 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. “My mobile phone battery is depleting fast,” the passenger added.

After several failed attempts, a rescuer finally managed to lift off one child. Footage on social media showed the child being winched to safety on a helicopter by a rope — the outline of his white shalwar kameez, traditional pants and long top, swinging against rows of towering green trees below.

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

But as the helicopter moved closer, the cable car began shaking heavily, which made an air rescue difficult — and terrifying for those trapped. 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.”

As darkness fell, the security services had to suspend helicopter operations, officials said, forcing rescue workers to employ a zip line.

Relatives could do little more than wait. “We know that Allah can save them. We all are praying,” Muhammad Sharif, Usama Sharif’s father, said in a phone interview.

About 11 p.m., after reports from the Pakistani military that more children had been rescued, came the much-awaited news: Everybody aboard the car had been lifted off.

On social media, videos showed two of the trapped children, wearing harnesses, emerging from a thicket of trees along the zip line to safety.

“God is great!” shout the onlookers, erupting into cheers as the boys come into view.

The cause of the cable failures was not immediately clear. Mr. Kakar, the prime minister, called the car’s breakage “alarming” and instructed the authorities to carry out safety inspections on all private mountain lifts to ensure their safety, according to a statement from his office.

Pashto, a village of some 30,000 people carved into the top of a hillside overlooking the Allai valley, is one of the poorest districts in this stretch of Pakistan. Fundamentals like health care, education, transportation and other essential elements of life are absent. The valley was badly affected by an earthquake in 2005 that killed more than 80,000 people and injured more than 100,000. And for decades, it was all but cut off from the towns surrounding it.

The nearest functioning hospital is about 90 miles away, residents said. Getting there had typically required tying sick people or women 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,” said Maulana Qasim Mehmood, a local religious leader.

The nearest high school is about four miles away, and, until recently, the journey 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 two more miles. Even when they arrived, actually being taught in a classroom was far from certain: Teachers rarely showed up to work, if at all.

Around five years ago, engineers agreed to build a cable car in Pashto to help students and others cross the valley, according to Mr. Mehmood, and its construction changed village life drastically.

The journey across the valley took just 10 minutes — and cost the equivalent of about 10 cents — on the cable car. These days, some 400 to 500 people use it for commuting every day, residents say. Such locally built lifts, often improvised, are typically powered by petrol or diesel engines and are privately owned.

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

But the cars are also known to be precarious.

In December, in a village about 90 miles from Pashto, the cable of another car snapped, trapping 12 schoolchildren. The students were stuck inside for around two hours before a rescue team saved them.

And in June, a woman and her 4-month-old son drowned after using a makeshift chairlift in the nearby Swat Valley. The mother had been taking her son to the hospital when he slipped off her lap into the river below, according to local news reports. She jumped in after him, and both were swallowed by the gushing waters.

Stories like those have been shared in hushed tones over the years in Pashto, but residents had little alternative but to use their cable car, they said.

As rescue workers brought the last of those trapped in the car to safety on Tuesday, relief that their lifeline had not become a death trap washed over the village.

“In that very instant, our comfort was found solely in our prayers,” said one villager, Janahzaib, who goes by only one name.

“The entire valley is now filled with joy.”

Isabella Kwai contributed reporting from London.

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