Army commandos using helicopters and a makeshift chairlift rescued eight people from a broken cable car dangling hundreds of feet above a canyon Tuesday in a remote part of Pakistan, authorities said.
The six children and two adults became trapped earlier in the day when one of the cables snapped while the passengers were crossing a river canyon in Battagram district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The children had been on their way to school.
Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar congratulated the military and other rescuers for the success. The dramatic effort transfixed the country for hours as Pakistanis crowded around televisions in offices, shops, restaurants and hospitals.
“Relieved to know that … all the kids have been successfully and safely rescued,” Kakar said on social media. “Great team work by the military, rescue departments, district administration as well as the local people.
Because helicopters could not fly after sunset, rescuers eventually shifted from an airborne effort to a risky operation that involved using one cable that was still intact to approach the car with the chairlift.
Footage on TV stations showed a child in a harness being pulled to safety. The commandos’ rope could be seen swaying in the wind against the mountainous landscape.
An expert described the helicopter rescues as extremely delicate because the wind generated by the helicopter blades could further weaken the remaining cables holding the car aloft.
Several military helicopters had earlier in the day flown reconnaissance sorties and an airman was lowered by harness to deliver food, water and medicine, Tanveer Ur Rehman, a local government official, told AFP.
“This is a delicate operation that demands meticulous accuracy. The helicopter can not approach the chairlift closely, as its downwash (air pressure) might snap the sole chain supporting it,” he said.
Anxious crowds gathered on both sides of the ravine, which is several hours from any sizeable town.
“Every time the helicopter lowered the rescuer closer to the chairlift, the wind from the helicopter would shake and disbalance the chairlift making the children scream in fear,” Ghulamullah, chairman of the Allai valley area, told Geo News.
As the rescued children were handed over to their families, most burst into tears, said Nazir Ahmed, a senior police officer who was present in the area where the air and ground rescue mission was launched.
“Everyone was praying for this moment,” he said.
A statement released by Pakistan’s army said military pilots demonstrated “exceptional skill and professionalism” during the rescue, the BBC reported. Local cable experts also helped.
The statement described the rescue as “unique” and “an operation of unprecedented difficulty.”
Food and water were supplied to the car earlier in the day, said Bilal Faizi, a spokesperson for the state-run emergency service.
According to Pakistani TV stations, some of those trapped were in contact with their families by cellphone. Authorities said the two adults were consoling the children, who were between the ages of 11 and 15.
“For God’s sake help us,” a man stuck in the cable car told Pakistani television. “… One man has already fainted.”
Villagers frequently use cable cars to get around Pakistan’s mountainous regions. But the cars are often poorly maintained, and every year people die or are injured while traveling in them.
Kakar said he ordered safety inspections of the country’s cable cars and chairlifts.
Helicopters were sent to attempt to pluck the people from the cable car but only after the group spent six hours precariously suspended 350 meters (1,150 feet) above ground, according to Taimoor Khan, a spokesman for the disaster management authority.
Several helicopters hovered above the scene, and ambulances gathered on the ground.
Tipu Sultan, a retired army brigadier and defense expert, warned that the helicopters themselves could make the situation worse but that the commandos would be well aware of that risk.
In 2017, 10 people were killed when a cable car fell into a ravine hundreds of meters (feet) deep in the popular mountain resort of Murree after its cable broke.
AFP contributed to this report.