The death toll due to unprecedented snowfall and rush of tourists in Pakistan's popular hill station of Murree reached 23 on Sunday after a minor girl, suffering from severe cold and pneumonia, died as she could not be rushed to the hospital in time.
Thousands of people visited Murree after the picturesque town in Rawalpindi in Punjab province received a record-breaking snowfall, leaving the local administration helpless and freezing to death at least 22 people, including 10 children, in their stranded vehicles.
The death of a four-year-old girl has pushed the toll to 23. The minor girl died in Jhika Gali. She was suffering from severe cold and pneumonia, according to rescue sources, adding that she lost her life as she could not be rushed to the hospital in time.
Rescue officials told Geo News at least 23 people have died thus far as vehicles continue to remain trapped in several feet of snow. The toll was later confirmed by Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed in a statement on Saturday night.
The minister said that the situation can only be described as a "natural calamity" and that the area had witnessed "extreme snowfall".
The cars were prevented from moving on to Murree, people began proceeding there on foot, and they too were stopped, he said. The minister said that the deaths were caused due to "suffocation".
The prime minister's aide on political communication Shahbaz Gill said people left their cars on the roads to seek shelter in hotels when it began to snow heavily which resulted in hampering the flow of traffic.
"The administration remains active and is trying its utmost to ensure all roads are clear for traffic," he said.
Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry said unprecedented snowfall coupled with a record influx of tourists made it next to impossible for the local administration to handle the situation.
He said the process of evacuating people from the affected areas was underway and the entire nation mourned the loss of precious human lives.
It was obvious that such a huge influx of people could not be managed easily, he said.
The Punjab Police on Sunday said that more than 500 families in the calamity-hit Murree were rescued and taken to safety in the last 24 hours.
Heavy snowfall on Murree's main highways caused 20 to 25 large trees to fall which had blocked roads. All tourists were rescued before nightfall and taken to safe places, said Punjab Police spokesperson.
Punjab Chief Minister Sardar Usman Buzdar will visit the snow-affected regions of Murree on Sunday after the area was declared calamity-stricken, The Express Tribune reported.
Every Pakistani is saddened by the tragic incident that took place in Murree. All sympathies of the Punjab government are with the families of the deceased, Buzdar said, paying his condolences to the bereaved families.
According to the Dawn newspaper, relevant government departments, including the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and the Rawalpindi district management, failed to take any preemptive measure despite heavy snowfall warnings issued days prior to the disaster in Murree.
No prior meeting was called by the NDMA with the district administrations of Rawalpindi, Islamabad and other departments to discuss traffic and accommodation issues in the hill station, it said.
The Met Office had issued alert on Jan 5 that heavy snowfall may cause road closures in Murree, Galiyat, Nathiagali, Kaghan, Naran and other areas from January 6 to Jan 9 afternoon.
All authorities concerned are particularly advised to remain alert' during the forecast period, the Met Office had stated.
Murree received 6.5 inches of snowfall on January 5 (Wednesday), followed by 8.5 inches the next day while 16.5 inches were recorded from the morning of January 7 (Friday) up to Saturday morning.
This is normal snowfall for Murree, an official of the Met Office told the daily.
Prime Minister Imran Khan said on Saturday he was shocked and upset at the tragic deaths of tourists on the road to Murree.
"Unprecedented snowfall & rush of ppl proceeding without checking weather conditions caught district admin unprepared. Have ordered inquiry & putting in place strong regulation to ensure prevention of such tragedies," Khan said in a tweet.
The Punjab government declared Murree as a calamity-hit area on Saturday after heavy snowfall wreaked havoc in the city.
The Pakistan Meteorological Department had predicted heavy snowfall in Murree and Galiyat from January 6 to 9.
Opposition political leaders criticised the government for its handling of the influx of tourists and inadequate preparation.
Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly and PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif said he was heartbroken over the tragedy in Murree and questioned who was responsible for the deaths.
"Where was the government all the while? What arrangements did it make to deal with such an influx? Incompetence is fast turning into criminality. Prior arrangements & round-the-clock supervision were the normal SOPs in the past," he tweeted.
Terming the deaths heartbreaking, PPP Vice President Sherry Rehman said governments "needed to be more vigilant about the flood of tourists on the Galiyat routes".
"Instead of seeking more tourists, the government should have given a warning for jammed roads. These were tragic & avoidable losses that no one intended, but no one acted in time either. Lessons need to be learnt," she added.
"The job of governments is not only to count tourists but also to make advance arrangements and security measures for them [...] These deaths are not due to snowfall but due to government negligence," tweeted PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz.
Due to continuous snowfall and traffic congestion in Murree, the district administration imposed a ban on the entry of more vehicles.
Snowfall, which began on Tuesday night, continued with regular intervals, attracting thousands of tourists. However, due to the rush of visitors, many families ended up getting stranded on roads. It was reported that over 100,000 vehicles entered the hill station.
In a statement, Chief Traffic Officer Taimoor Khan said on Saturday the entry of vehicles into Murree had been banned from Friday night onwards and cars were being diverted from toll plazas and other entrances.
He said since snowfall started on Monday morning, more than 155,000 vehicles had entered Murree and 135,000 had so far left.