Islamabad – The town of Chota Sahiwal was already wrapped in the black of mourning before the sky turned grey with rain clouds on Sunday.
At least 65 residents of this town — most of them were members of an extended family — in Sargodha district had planned to visit a shrine near Kallar Kahar. But they never reached the destination.
The overloaded mini-truck carrying them sped off the road near the Martan khurd village near Kallar Kahar in district Chakwal, some 150 kilometres north of their native town, and plunged into a ravine.
By Sunday morning, the overnight death toll had increased to 18 from 15, authorities said. At least 47 passengers were injured.
TV news reports on Sunday afternoon showed gravediggers at the town’s graveyard working under the cover of plastic sheets, to keep rainwater from pooling in the freshly dug earth.
As the sheets billowed in the windy weather, the TV cameras panned to show some graves that were only a few feet in length, to lay to rest the children who died in the accident. Three children were confirmed dead, police and rescue officials in the Chakwal district said, revising an earlier estimate from Saturday night that five children had died.
Police and district officials also said there were around 25 children on the mini-truck at the time of the accident. Four women also perished in the accident, they said.
The dead bodies of 16 passengers were brought back to the Chota Sahiwal town on Sunday morning, where the funeral and burial were expected to take place later in the evening.
The mini-truck’s passengers reportedly belonged to two extended families from the town and 15 of the deceased were from the same family.
A police officer at the Kallar Kahar police station, which holds jurisdiction over the accident site, said the passengers were headed to Pir Khara shrine, a popular religious destination in north Punjab.
“The driver of the mini-truck, who was unfamiliar with the local road, was also injured in the accident and we have not recorded his statement yet,” the Kallar Kahar police officer said. “The accident occurred due to brakes failure and over-speeding. The mini-truck was also overloaded at the time of the accident.”
Darkness and the remote mountainous area hampered rescue efforts on Saturday night, even though local rescue staff responded immediately.
The dead bodies and injured were shifted to three different hospitals because health facilities nearby did not have the capacity to handle the scale of the accident.
Some of the critically wounded were transported to a hospital in Chakwal, where emergency was declared to help with treatment of the injured, and to the District Headquarters hospital Sargodha.
The accident occurred in the hilly terrain of the Kallar Kahar salt range, which is known for its tricky slopes and sharp bends in the roads. Just over a week ago, another bus destined for Pir Khara had overturned on the Lahore-Islamabad motorway near Kallar Kahar, killing three passengers.
Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif expressed grief over the Chakwal accident and ordered the district administrations in Chakwal and Sargodha to provide treatment facilities to the injured and to support the bereaved families.