Until last week, Sahib Khan was living an ordinary life in a small town nestled in the mountains of north-western Pakistan.
He was running a cable car business in a region where that mode of transport remains the quickest – if not the safest – one.
A phone call has changed his life, making him a known name in the country and beyond.
That call was for a rescue mission for a group of eight people, including six children, stuck in a cable car hanging hundreds of feet above a ravine in the town of Allai.
Sahib, along with an Army Commando and another local rescuer, brought the people to safety on a zip line, after air operations that involved army helicopters were suspended due to low visibility.
One of the passengers had been airlifted earlier, so the three men took four hours to bring the remaining seven to safety.
“It was really difficult. When we reached them, they all were in good spirits, especially the children,” Sahib told Anadolu .
“It was very risky. We could have lost our lives, but our faith in God and the drive to help the worried parents helped us get through it.”
He has been hailed as a real-life hero, drawing plaudits from far and wide for his courage.
Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister, Anwaar-Ul-Haq Kakar,, invited the rescuers and survivors to his office last week.
“He (Kakar) hugged me and said ‘Sahib Khan you are our hero’,” the 24-year-old told Anadolu .
“But I believe the real heroes were the children who went through that ordeal. They showed extraordinary courage,” he said.
No choice despite safety risks
Gul Faraz and his nephew were among the group stuck on the cable car, locally called a “ doli ”.
Following their miraculous rescue after almost 14 hours, Faraz promised himself he would never get on another cable car.
However, he knows that is not a promise he can keep.
“I swore that I would never set foot in a cable car after seeing death up close. But it’s also true that I have no other choice,” said Faraz, a teacher who was heading to his school along with students when the disaster struck.
“The safety standards of these cable cars are not that high, but it’s the only feasible way to get around these mountains. It saves a lot of time.”
He said the journey to his school by road would take more than two hours, while the cable car gets him there in five minutes.
Hundreds of such privately-owned cable cars have been operating for decades in the north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, mainly in the seven districts of the scenic Hazara region at the confluence of the Hindu Kush, Himalaya and Karakoram mountain ranges.
The makeshift chairlifts ferry thousands of people across the mountains every day, connecting isolated communities scattered across the region.
Following last week’s incident, the government has shut down dozens of cable cars over safety fears.
The move, however, has not gone down well with locals, who say they have no other alternative.
“It takes us five minutes and just a few rupees to get to a hospital located at the foothill of that mountain. That would take two hours by road,” Fawad Shah, a local social worker told Anadolu , pointing at a peak.
“Instead of shutting down cable cars, the government should invest in this sector and ensure that there is proper maintenance like other parts of the world.”
Faraz said the ordeal is something he will never forget.
“Hanging hundreds of feet in the air for 14 hours is more than an unforgettable experience. I admit there was a time when I panicked. All the children were screaming and crying,” he said.
The situation worsened when one of students, Irfanullah, fell unconscious.
“I kept praying and tried to keep myself calm so I could help the children … A couple of them really showed great courage,” he said.
For Faraz’s nephew, 14-year-old Rizwanullah Khan, a trip to his school is a risk he takes every day.
“It’s very dangerous to send children to school like this, but we have no other choice,” his father, Abdul Qayyum said.
“He hasn’t been going to school since the accident. Getting on a cable car is unthinkable for him, at least for now.”
Mufti Ghulamullah, the Mayor of Allai, said residents are compelled to risk their lives because there are no roads and bridges in the region.
“This is not a choice. They have to do it because the state has failed to give us roads and bridges,” he told Anadolu .
While last week’s incident grabbed media attention, such cases are nothing unusual in this neck of the woods.
Just days after the accident, a handmade chairlift carrying three people was stuck mid-air over a river in the north-western Chitral district, but local rescuers managed to save them in less than an hour.
Similarly, in December last year, 12 students were rescued from a dangling cable car over a river in the nearby Abbottabad district.
Keeping children out of school
The situation is also affecting children’s education in the region, according to officials.
The lack of infrastructure and such dangerous travel options are keeping many children out of schools, especially girls, said Ata-Ur-Rehman, the district education officer.
He did not have specific figures, but another official said the figure was in the thousands.
Ghulamullah, the Mayor, said almost 90 per cent of girls and 50 per cent of boys in the district are not in schools, blaming the figure on the infrastructure problems.
“A majority of locals want to send their kids to school but they aren’t because of these perilous journeys,” he said.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.