(This story was reported by Ahmed Hanayesh in Salang Pass and written by Ron Synovitz in Prague.)
SALANG PASS, Afghanistan -- Noor Afghaa had just driven his crowded passenger bus through Afghanistan's Salang Tunnel on the night of February 8 when he heard a rumble and a roar.
Driving south in a blizzard along the narrow Salang Pass, Afghaa's bus was passing through what is, in winter time, one of the most dangerous stretches of highway through the Hindu Kush mountains. The road itself is some 3,300 meters above sea level. The snow-covered mountains tower high above.
"My bus was hit by an avalanche in the Salang Pass," Afghaa told RFE/RL from a hospital bed in the nearby town of Char-i Kar. "I had 40 passengers on the bus. Only 18 passengers made it to safety. I don't know what happened to the others. Everyone was trying to save his own life."
By the evening of February 10, authorities had recovered the bodies of more than 160 victims buried by a series of avalanches. The stories told to RFE/RL by survivors suggest the death toll could rise as search teams continue their work -- and when the spring thaw reveals the full extent of the tragedy.
The first avalanche blocked the highway just south of the Salang Tunnel. As the traffic began to pile up, travelers in cars, trucks, and buses found themselves trapped in a deadly avalanche zone. Then, one after another, as many as 16 more avalanches wiped their vehicles off the road.
A correspondent from RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan who visited the Salang Pass on February 9 reports seeing dozens of buses like Aghaa's that had fallen down the mountainside -- each able to carry 40 to 50 passengers. All were crushed or ripped open with their windows smashed out. Some tumbled and were pushed by the snow as far as a kilometer down the mountain.
Plunge Into Gorge
Survivors brought to the hospital of Char-i Kar, the capital of Parwan Province about 30 kilometers from the tragedy, tell horrific tales. Most are poor, ordinary Afghans who now say they regret trying to cross the Hindu Kush mountains overnight in a blizzard.
One 30-year-old man from Parwan Province told Radio Free Afghanistan he felt a massive jolt as the bus he was traveling in was struck by the full force of an avalanche.
Lying on a table while doctors debated whether to amputate his frostbitten hands and feet, he described the bus being knocked from the road and plunging into a rocky gorge below.
"Among us was a child who was about 10 years old. He was crying all the time and pleading with us, 'Take me away from here.' But nobody was able to help," the survivor from Parwan said.
"The storm was very heavy," he continues. "It was so cold that you couldn't stop for even a minute -- otherwise you would have been frozen. It was a very difficult moment for me. My leg is injured and both of my hands and my feet have frostbite."
A passenger on another bus, a 35-year-old man from northern Afghanistan, told RFE/RL he became seriously concerned when the bus stopped at about 22:30 on February 8 and he saw the impact of an earlier avalanche just south of the Salang Tunnel.
"The road was already blocked," he said. "Suddenly, we heard a very loud noise and we realized we were being struck by an avalanche. It knocked the bus off the road and sent us tumbling 300 meters down the mountainside. Many people were buried in the snow."
The passenger said only some of those who survived the fall were able to climb out of the tangled wreckage of the bus and climb back up the mountainside to the road.
"When we reached the roadside, there was a truck that also had been struck by the avalanche," he said. "It was carrying potatoes and apples. We climbed inside the truck to keep ourselves warm."
Search For Survivors
Making fires until after midnight, the group huddled together there until more trucks arrived. The Afghans in those trucks threw out their 'pattos' -- Afghan blankets worn as winter clothing -- and they climbed aboard.
Another driver from Kabul told RFE/RL he was trying to drive a full passenger bus from Kabul to the northern city of Mazar-i Sharif when the first avalanche roared down from the mountains:
"There were many avalanches but we were struck by the first avalanche," he said. "The bus tumbled over four times as it plummeted down the mountain until it landed in a river."
Out of 40 people on that bus, the driver said only eight survived the fall and managed to get out of the bus.
"We don't know what happened to the others," he said. "When we got out and managed to climb back up to the road, the Afghan security forces were there. They took us to the hospital in Parwan."
More than a day after the avalanches, rescuers had not given up hope of finding survivors buried in the snow. They were rewarded for their diligence when they pulled a young girl out from the snow -- alive.
The girl told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that she heard a voice comforting her through her ordeal.
Rescue workers say her story of survival is "a miracle." Her mother, holding the girl after the rescue, told RFE/RL the voice she heard "must have been an angel."
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan Deputy Director Hashem Mohmand contributed to this story