PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Minutes after walking his teenage son to the cable car he takes to school Tuesday, Umraiz Khan said, he heard a loud noise followed by the sound of people screaming.
Running back down to where he had left Irfan, 14, he said he saw the cable car dangling around 900 feet above the deep valley in the remote, mountainous region of Pakistan where they live. Two of its three cables had snapped.
Its eight terrified passengers, seven of them schoolchildren between the ages of 9 and 15, were huddled inside, swinging at a 45-degree angle above the forests below.
“It was a huge shock for me, as my son and his classmates were between life and death,” Khan told NBC News from his village of Jhangrai in Pakistan’s Battagram region, around 150 miles north of the capital, Islamabad.
What followed was a gripping, 12-hour rescue mission watched by television audiences around the world, involving commandos rappelling from helicopters, high winds and the constant fear that the final cable would sever.
“Don’t ask me how we got through those long hours,” Khan, who is in his 60s, said. “Helplessly looking at near and dear ones from the ground, you don’t know what will happen to them.”
Taking a cable car or chairlift to school or elsewhere isn’t uncommon in this part of Pakistan. Basic versions of this mode of transportation are used to bypass the winding roads and tracks that would take hours to traverse the majestic but impenetrable terrain.
There have been similar accidents in the past, Amir Tareen, commissioner of the local Hazara region in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, said after leading the “risky” mission. This car’s cables snapped at 7 a.m. local time Tuesday (10 p.m. ET Monday), while the group was halfway across.
The only adult among those trapped, Gul Faraz, 20, conveyed their terror in a phone call to local TV channel Geo News as the cable car was still swinging in the air. “Our situation is precarious, for God’s sake, do something,” he said.
An estimated 8,000 people had gathered on the hillsides to watch the rescue operation, The Associated Press reported.
The army was mobilized, and commandos rappelling from a helicopter tried several times to extract those inside the car. However, high winds made this more difficult, exacerbated by the powerful gusts from the helicopter’s own rotor blades.
It was a painstaking operation, and finally just before sunset the helicopter managed to rescue one child — Irfan.
The other seven were still stranded as night fell.
Faraz later said he had no idea their perilous situation had garnered so much attention on TV.
“We didn’t believe people in the entire world were watching us and praying for our safe rescue,” he said. “When we were passing through middle of the valley, one of the chairlift’s ropes broke down. The chairlift lost its balance and overturned and we thought it would fall down to the ground.”