PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — Schoolchildren who were rescued from a broken cable car dangling high above a valley in Pakistan said Wednesday they repeatedly feared they were about to die during the 16-hour ordeal despite attempts by their parents to reassure them over cellphones.
Several of the children, who had been on their way to school Tuesday when one of the car’s cables snapped, also appealed for a school and bridge to be built in their village so they wouldn’t have to ride the cable car in the future.
Six children and two adults were pulled from the cable car in a daring rescue Tuesday. One of the youngest was grabbed by a commando attached to a helicopter by rope, while others were lowered to the ground with the help of volunteers using a makeshift chairlift constructed by villagers from a wooden bed frame and ropes. Volunteer Mohammad Sohaib emerged as a hero after helping to rescue three of the children, one by one.
“I had heard stories about miracles, but I saw a miraculous rescue happening with my own eyes,” said 15-year-old Osama Sharif, one of those rescued.
Osama was headed to school on Tuesday to receive the results of his final exam when one of the cables snapped.
“We suddenly felt a jolt, and it all happened so suddenly that we thought all of us are going to die,” he said in a telephone interview.
Some of those aboard had cellphones and started making calls. Worried parents tried to reassure the children.
“They were telling us don’t worry, help is coming,” he said. After several hours, the passengers saw helicopters flying in the air.
Locally made cable cars are a widely used form of transportation in the mountainous Battagram district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Gliding across steep valleys, they cut down travel time to schools, workplaces and businesses. But they often are poorly maintained, and every year people die or are injured while using them.
On Wednesday, police arrested Gul Zarin, the owner of the cable car, on charges of ignoring safety measures. Local authorities in the northwestern mountainous regions said they would close all cable cars believed to be unsafe.
Thousands of people turned out to watch the risky operation on Tuesday. At one stage, a rope lowered from a helicopter swayed wildly as a child, secured by a harness, was pulled up.
In fact, the choppers added an element of danger. The air currents churned up by the whirling blades risked weakening the only cable preventing the cable car from crashing to the bottom of the river canyon.
“We cried, and tears were in our eyes, as we feared the cable car will go down,” Osama said.
After sunset, with the helicopters no longer able to fly, rescuers shifted tactics. They used a makeshift chairlift to approach the cable car using the one cable that was still intact, local police chief Nazir Ahmed said.
Shouts of “God is great” erupted as the chairlift was lowered to the ground in the final stage of the operation just before midnight.
Ahmed said the children received oxygen as a precaution before being handed over to their parents, many of whom burst into tears of joy.
Two other survivors, Rizwan Ullah, an 11-year-old boy and Gul Faraz, 25, told The Associated Press that they would not forget the ordeal for years.
Gul said he feared while waiting for rescue that the cable car would crash to the ground and “we would die soon.” He appealed to the government to build a school in the area and link their village to nearby towns with a bridge and a road “so our elders and young people don’t face such things.”
Rizwan said he doesn’t want to use the cable car again, but that would only be possible if a school is built nearby.
Ata Ullah, another rescued student, said he would try to be brave the next time he has to ride one.
“I feel fear in my mind about using the cable car, but I have no other option. I will go to my school again when the cable car is repaired,” he said.