Peshawar, Pakistan – Minutes after he took his teenage son to the cable car to take him to school on Tuesday, Amriz Khan said he heard a loud bang, followed by people screaming.
Running back to where he left 14-year-old Irfan, he said he saw a cable car hanging 900 feet above a deep valley in the remote mountainous region of Pakistan where they live. Two of its three cables have snapped.
Its eight panicked occupants, seven of them schoolchildren between the ages of 9 and 15, were huddled inside, teetering 45 degrees over the woods 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 Patagram district, about 150 miles north of the capital, Islamabad.
What ensued was a thrilling 12-hour rescue mission, watched by TV viewers around the world, that involved commandos descending from helicopters, high winds, and the constant fear that the last cable might snap.
“Don’t ask me how we spent those long hours,” said Khan, who is in his sixties. “When you look helplessly at the people near and dear to Earth, you don’t know what will happen to them.”
Taking a cable car or cable car ride to school or anywhere else is not uncommon in this part of Pakistan. Basic versions of this mode of transport are used to traverse winding roads and paths that would take hours to traverse majestic but impenetrable terrain.
After leading the “risky” mission, Amir Tareen, commissioner of the local Hazara district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, said similar incidents had happened in the past. This car’s cables snapped at 7 a.m. local time Tuesday (10 p.m. ET Monday), while the group was in the middle of the road.
The only adult among those trapped, Gul Faraz, 20, conveyed his terror in a phone call to local TV channel Geo News while the cable car was still swinging in the air. “Our situation is precarious, for God’s sake, do something,” he said.
The Associated Press reported that an estimated 8,000 people gathered on the hillsides to watch the rescue.
The army was mobilized, and the commandos, who landed from a helicopter, tried several times to remove those inside the vehicle. However, high winds made it more difficult, exacerbated by the powerful gusts from the helicopter’s rotating blades.
It was an arduous process, and finally just before sunset the helicopter managed to rescue one child – Irfan.
The other seven are still stuck as night falls.
Faraz later said he had no idea their precarious situation had received so much attention on television.
“We could not believe that people all over the world were watching us and praying for our safe rescue,” he said. “When we were passing through the middle of the valley, one of the ropes of the cable car snapped. The elevator lost its balance and tipped over, and we thought it was going to fall to the ground.”