MIRPUR (AJK) - Around two dozen tourists, most of them Punjab students touring scenic Neelum Valley of Azad Kashmir, fell into a stream when a hanging footbridge collapsed in Kundal Shahi area on Sunday.

At least six of the victims, including women, were confirmed dead and their bodies recovered. Another six were still missing, with little hope for their survival in the strong icy current of water.

Eight youth suffered injuries in the incident but were rescued by the locals and taken to hospital. The large majority of victims comprised university students from Lahore, Faisalabad, Sahiwal and Multan.

The frail bridge, overlooking a ravine in the mountainous area, buckled when around three dozen students walked across it to view a waterfall.

Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa expressed deep grief and sorrow over the tragedy and directed all relevant authorities to provide all possible assistance in relief and rescue operations.

To search for the missing, Pakistan Army helicopters had flown SSG divers to the incident site – located some 75 kilometres northeast of AJK capital Muzaffarabad.

Neelum Deputy Commissioner Raja Shahid Mehmood informed that around 72 students were travelling in three different coaches to Neelum Valley. Some of them visited Kundal Shahi, a tourist spot of Kuton Jagran.

He said that at least 26 students gathered on the Jagran hanging bridge, built on a deep gulch, for taking selfies ignoring the warning on the board installed at the bridge which collapsed due to overweight.

According to Neelum DC, the police and local people came for the rescue. After hectic efforts they recovered four bodies and shifted eight injured students to the District Hospital Athmuqam.

“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,” Dawn News quoted Mirza Zahid Hussain, the superintendent of police in Neelum Valley.

“The violent current immediately swept away the victims; so far, six 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 Muzaffarabad control room said the deceased had been identified as Shahzeb, Abdul Rehman, Adeem and Hammad. It was yet to be confirmed which city they belonged to, he added.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.



Fatalities as Punjab students fall in Neelum stream