Pakistan's prayers answered as cable car survivors given 'second life'

Children receive first aid after they were rescued from the stranded chairlift, in Battagram

By Mushtaq Ali and Asif Shahzad

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) -When Pakistani villager Gul Faraz rang his family to raise the alarm that a cable had snapped and he and seven schoolchildren were trapped in a cable car swaying in the wind high above a rocky ravine, he doubted he would ever see home again.

"It is an unforgettable day," Faraz said on Wednesday, a day after army commandos performed a miraculous rescue, winching two to safety with a helicopter, and bringing the rest down on a zip line when it became too dark to fly safely in the gusting winds.

"I can't tell you what we experienced yesterday when one cable of the cable car suddenly snapped and we were stranded in the air," said Faraz, who at 20 years old was the only adult aboard, and the only person with a mobile phone.

He called his family first, and then television channel Geo News, whose coverage quickly drew the attention of the world's media to the drama unfolding in the remote mountains of northwestern Pakistan.

It is a part of the world where cable cars and rickety rope bridges are the fastest way to move from a village on one hillside to its nearest neighbour across ravines and valleys.

The owner and the operator of the cable car have since been arrested, police said on Wednesday, though the allegations against them were not clear.

The schoolchildren, aged between 10 and 16, had been coming down from their homes in Jhangri to a school in Battangi, comprising two villages in the Allai valley, when the calamity struck at around 7 a.m. local time.

The journey by cable car usually takes just a matter of minutes, whereas travelling along the rough mountain roads and tracks takes hours.

It would be 16 hours before the high-risk rescue operation brought everyone safely off the flimsy car as it dangled 183 metres (600 feet) above the ground, the military said, lowering the height estimated by officials earlier but making it no less deadly.

There were fears the remaining cable could give way any time, and cries of "God is Great" arose from people gathered around to see the children brought down on harnesses by soldiers on a zip line.

"At some point, I had lost hope that we would safely return home," Faraz told Reuters by telephone from his home, where his family was receiving visitors from villages across the region, all offering thanks for their survival.

Having dreaded the worst, Pakistan exulted with relief and pride over the daring rescue.

"Our first priority was to secure the children," caretaker Prime Minister Anwar ul Haq Kakar said, describing the feat as "near impossible".

"It was heartening to see the whole nation praying and standing united ... in the hour of need," Kakar told a news conference in the southern city of Karachi.

Those prayers were answered for Faraz and the children.

"We got a second life," he said.

(Reporting by Mushtaq Ali in Peshawar; writing and reporting by Asif Shahzad in Islamabad; editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Andrew Heavens and Mark Heinrich)