Avalanche swallows hotel following earthquakes in central Italy

Up to 30 people feared buried by snow and debris following Abruzzo avalanche

 

A huge avalanche swallowed up a luxury mountain hotel in central Italy after a series of strong earthquakes rocked the area on Wednesday evening, burying up to 30 people under tonnes of snow and debris, officials said on Thursday.

By yesterday afternoon, three bodies had been recovered from the Hotel Rigopiano in Farindola, Abruzzo, but given the devastation wreaked by the avalanche, it seems almost certain that there will be more victims among the 20 guests and seven hotel staff.

When rescue workers finally entered the hotel yesterday morning they were confronted with a scene of almost total destruction. The three-storey structure had been reduced to one storey, much of which was merely building debris. More worryingly, when the rescuers called out, there was no response, while sniffer dogs were unable to pick up any human scent.

In a highly seismic area already struck by an earthquake last August in which 297 people died, rescue workers struggled in blizzard conditions. They had great difficulty in reaching the hotel and were forced to attempt a rescue with only small fold-up shovels and their bare hands.

Seismologists are convinced that three major tremors in the region on Wednesday, which were clearly felt as far away as Rome, provoked the avalanche which was so strong that it not only buried the hotel Rigopiano but also moved it 10m down the mountainside. The hotel sits at the foot of the Gran Sasso mountain, a region popular with skiers in winter and with hikers in the summer. A luxury resort, it offers not only skiing and trekking but also a swimming pool and spa services.

Two survivors

So far, only two people have survived the tragedy. Giampiero Parete and Fabio Salzetta were outside the building when the avalanche struck.

“I am alive only because I went out to get something from the car,” Mr Parete said from his hospital bed in nearby Pescara. “The avalanche came down and completely buried me but I was able to get out. Fortunately, my car was not covered and I was able to wait for the rescue workers in it . . . My wife and two children are in the hotel and I tried to get back in but it was impossible, I almost got buried in the snow.”

It is feared that not only the building’s collapse but also the sub-zero temperatures will have made survival almost impossible for those trapped inside. Relatives of some of the victims confirmed yesterday that many of the hotel guests were intending to leave the hotel on Wednesday because of the deteriorating weather conditions. Guests had reportedly gathered in the foyer to await the arrival of a snow plough which would have cleared the impassable hotel road. Unfortunately, before the snow plough arrived the hotel was struck by the avalanche.

Raising alarm

Quintino Marcello, Giampiero Parete’s employer, claimed yesterday that Parete, stuck outside the hotel, had rung him to sound the alarm. Marcello claims to have alerted the emergency services but that they did not believe him, arguing that the hotel was not in any danger.

What is certain is that although the avalanche happened late Wednesday afternoon, the rescue workers arrived at the hotel only at 4.30am on Thursday. Clearly, the rescue was greatly hampered by the -7 degree blizzard conditions which blocked snow vehicles and ambulances nine kilometres short of the hotel, leaving the mountain rescue team to complete the journey on skis.

The current seismic activity in central Italy appears to be without precedent. It is estimated that since the August 24th earthquake in Amatrice there has been a tremor of some dimension every four minutes. Between midnight Wednesday and 7am on Thursday, 80 tremors were registered in the region by the Institute of Vulcanology.

Rescue workers are now worried that a predicted drop in temperature may provoke further avalanches in the wake of the heavy snowfalls of recent days.

The Department of Foreign Affairs stated that Irish citizens were not believed to be involved in the tragedy, adding that anyone with serious concerns for Irish citizens in the area should call 0039-065852381 or 01-4082527.