A team of 36 divers from Peshawar, Karak, Hangu and Nowshera districts took part in an emergency operation to recover the bodies of students and teachers who had drowned in the Tanda Dam Lake in Kohat after their boat capsized on January 29. They managed to recover 53 bodies in the search operation that lasted six days. Of the 51 students on the boat, only four were rescued successfully.
Among the first to arrive at the scene of the tragic incident were Noor Alam Khan, chairman of a local union council and a trained Civil Defence member. He said the boat had capsized at around 9AM on Sunday. The rescue mission began 20 minutes later. There were 51 madrassah students, between the ages of seven and fourteen years, a teacher and a boat operator onboard the boat. The students were visiting Tanda Dam, a popular tourist site in the district, for a day trip on the scenic lake.
The plan was for them to cross the lake on a boat and get to the other side. The boat operator made two trips. He took 18 students on the boat the first time, however, before taking the second batch of students, he realised that he was low on fuel. After conferring with their teacher, he decided to board all the students and the teacher on the boat – 57 people in all. The boat had seats for 15 people only.
When the rescue began, no one knew the exact number of students on board. Rescue-1122 officials were called, and they brought their divers who dived into the freezing lake to search for survivors and bodies.
On the first day, the Rescue-1122 team managed to rescue five students and recover 10 bodies. One of the rescued students passed away the next day.
The next day, Rescue-1122 sent 36 divers from four districts with six additional boats to join the search operation. They recovered 20 bodies on the second day. The body of an 11-year-old, Hamza, was recovered on the sixth day of the mission.
Bilal Ahmad Faizi, spokesperson for Rescue 1122 Peshawar Headquarters, commended the divers for their dedicated service. He said the task was very hard but the rescue divers had continued the search. However, they managed to recover only 53 bodies. While the divers had adequate equipment at their disposal, it was impossible to stay underwater for more than 20 minutes at a time.
In the wake of the tragic incident, people living near and around the lake have demanded police action against the madrassah administrator who had not ensured safety of his students. “After the tragedy, the entire district is in mourning. The guardian (administrator of the madrassa) of the children is responsible for what happened. The local community and administration are unable to act against him because he too lost a son and four other family members in the incident,” Noor Alam Khan said.
In the meantime, the police have registered a first information report (FIR) against the executive engineer, chief engineer, sub-divisional officer of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Irrigation Department, and the boat operator. A court has since granted bail-before-arrest to the Irrigation Department officials.
Khan said the local community were planning to nominate some district administration officials in the FIR. The incident, he said, had occurred due to the negligence of the local administration. He insisted that the district administration should be held responsible.
The recent tragedy is not the first incident of a boat capsizing at a tourist spot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In fact, similar incidents occur every year because boat operators continue to overload their vessels and carry no lifejackets or safety gear. The provincial government has issued boat safety regulations but enforcing those has been a challenge for the local administrations.
In 2019, a boat carrying 50 people had capsized in Tarbela Lake after which the provincial government issued safety instructions for boat operators in the province. The government issued orders for the training of boatmen and the enforcement of safe boating regulations in the province.
According to the KP boat safety regulations: “All boat owners and operators must be registered with the deputy commissioner of the district of operation and the local police stations. All boats should undergo regular inspections to ensure that safety protocols are being followed.”
“Boat owners and operators must be certified swimmers. A sufficient number of lifejackets in accordance with the number of seats should be available. To ensure safety and compliance of these rules, signboards should be erected at all piers,” the boating regulations state.
Despite the clear instructions, only a handful of boat operators in the province follow the regulations. A lifejacket costs between Rs 2,000 and Rs 5,000 in Pakistan and having them loaded on such boats are an expensive and therefore uncommon practice. (Edited by Khadijah Kamili)