The Murree misfortune

The tragic loss of precious human lives would have been avoided with all these measures

Muhammad Zaheer January 17, 2022
The writer is an assistant professor of Chemistry at LUMS


I was in Murree with my family a day before the horrific snowstorm that claimed 23 precious lives in snow-stranded vehicles. Apparently, running car engines and snow-clogged exhaust might have accumulated dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide (CO) — an odorless gaseous product of fuel combustion — that silently killed the inhabitants. CO binds more efficiently with the red pigment of our blood — the hemoglobin — and deprives the cells of oxygen, leading to unconsciousness and ultimately death. However, the primary reason why the passengers had to stay in their cars and survive the harsh weather conditions was the overwhelming number of vehicles on the roads and worst traffic jams; and informed decisions based on technology, statistics and weather forecast could have saved the precious lives.

We entered Murree around noon after being stuck in a heavy traffic jam for three hours. By then, a thin layer of snow had covered the roads, and it was tough to drive front-wheel drive vehicles. We had to walk a few miles to reach our destination. Strong winds and heavy snow continued for around 24 hours, hardly allowing any outdoor activities. At noon, I accompanied my brother-in-law to check the situation. Both main roads to Islamabad were not cleared, and neither were any signs of such activity. Only vehicles with chained tires were hardly managing to go up and downhill. The local transport to the capital was closed too. We were approached by some local people who offered us to chain our vehicles and take them to Bansra Gali for Rs25,000 each. A four-wheel-drive car charged 1,500 per person for Jhika Gali, just 5 miles away from Mall Road. The locals told us that the weather will stay the same until January 11 and we should consider their offer. Luckily, I had checked the weather forecast from a reliable online source, and there was a weather window with no snowstorm the next day. We decided to stay overnight and check our luck the next day.

There was no light that night, but luckily the snow stopped at midnight. The next day, we used shovels to clear our vehicles stuck in the snow. After being stuck in traffic for one hour, we took the Jinnah Road and managed to reach Kashmir Road around noon and took a sigh of relief. There was a forecast of another snowstorm later that day, and we had to leave the hills before that. I wondered, seeing more vehicles running towards Murree than those exiting the hill station. There was a forecast of another snowstorm from January 7 to 9, and I think the administration would have used the January 6th weather window and closed Murree for entry of vehicles and would have focused on clearing the city. Also, it was apparent that there would be more influx due to the upcoming weekend. The closure decision came relatively late, on January 7. By that time, a massive number of vehicles had already entered Murree.

Before traveling, I have tried to find an online travel advisory. Although some Twitter accounts mentioned some important phone numbers, none of them responded during the late hours of the night. In the absence of electricity and low internet connectivity, it was hard to get a weather forecast and plan the journey accordingly.

I realised that we were not prepared well for a hill station being tourists. Firstly, we didn’t have our vehicle chained, which would have led to an accident while driving on snowy slopy roads. Secondly, we used unsuitable cars for hilly areas and were not prepared for any emergency.

The authorities would have timely guessed the gravity of the situation. The use of technology such as drones and CCTV would have given real-time data of vehicles entering and leaving the city and helped make informed decisions. Lastly, travel advisories must have cautioned the tourists about not using car heaters and engines running while stranded in the snow. The tragic loss of precious human lives would have been avoided with all these measures.


Published in The Express Tribune, January 17, 2022.

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