Police on Sunday confirmed that four people have drowned following the collapse of a footbridge over an icy water channel in Neelum Valley of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) while at least 11 others are still missing.
The 11 missing tourists, mostly young students, were among those who were standing on the footbridge when it collapsed on Sunday.
“Though we are yet to confirm an exact figure, it is believed that between 20 to 25 persons were standing on the footbridge when it crumbled,” said Mirza Zahid Hussain, the superintendent of police in Neelum Valley.
“The violent current immediately swept away the victims; so far, four bodies have been recovered,” he added.
The SP said that the figures could vary as teams were collecting the details of all tourists that had entered or left the area from the relevant check posts.
An official at a control room in Muzaffarabad said the deceased had been identified as Shahzeb, Abdul Rehman, Adeem and Hammad, adding that it was yet to be confirmed which city they belonged to.
He said eight students — identified as Anam, Alina, Waleed, Sajid, Hamza, Rashid, Zubair (all residents of Faisalabad) and Iqra Mazhar (resident of Multan) — were rescued and had been admitted to the District Headquarters Hospital Athmuqam where their condition was said to be stable. Another three were discharged after treatment.
The tragedy occurred when the tourists, many of whom were said to be the students from Lahore, Sahiwal, Faisalabad and Multan, were picnicking along the gushing Jagran Nullah near Kundal Shahi, a town located some 75 kilometres northeast of Muzaffarabad.
Neelum valley is one of the most attractive tourist locations in the AJK, which draws hundreds of thousands of tourists from across the country, particularly in the scorching summers.
The area is, however, prohibited to foreign tourists because of its proximity to the heavily militarised Line of Control, the de facto border that splits the disputed Himalayan region between the nuclear-armed neighbours India and Pakistan.
Raja Mubasher Ejaz, a leader of the PPP, was among those who witnessed the footbridge’s collapse, apparently because of the load of people standing on it.
“The students were enjoying the view of the emerald green water and taking selfies when suddenly it collapsed, sweeping them away,” he told Dawn.
The Jagran Nullah merges into Neelum River some 4 kilometres ahead of the site of the incident.
Ejaz said four of the tourists who clung to the wooden bars of the collapsed bridge were immediately rescued by the locals at the site while the other four were recovered after a little while from a distance.
According to SP Hussain, there is a warning board along the wooden bridge about its maximum load capacity which the tourists ignored.
One of the survivors told reporters that while he and one of his friends struggled to get hold of some rock in the stream and eventually succeeded, others could not withstand the force of rapidly moving water and were flown away. He thanked the locals for rescuing them.
Meanwhile, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa expressed grief on the loss of lives in the incident.
According to a statement by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the COAS directed for all possible assistance to the civil administration for relief and rescue.
“Pakistan Army rescue and relief efforts [are] underway… [and] army troops along with doctors and paramedics have reached the incident site,” the statement said.
It said that two Pakistan Army helicopters had flown SSG special divers to the incident site for the search operation. The choppers airlifted four bodies and 11 injured from the valley to Muzaffarabad.
Meanwhile, a number of people on social media criticised the authorities over a lack of proper guidance to the tourists.
“The government has been squandering millions on unnecessary constructions but unfortunately, it cannot spare funds for projects, such as this bridge, involving safety and security of precious human lives,” wrote Faisal Jamil Kashmiri, a civil society activist, on his wall.
On July 7 last year, a tourist family from Rawalpindi was struck by a dreadful tragedy after three of its young members were swept away by the same violent stream, almost around the same spot.