Italian investigators to see if controversial avalanche hotel built in danger zone

Inquiry to look at planning permission and efficiency of rescue services

The funeral of Hotel Rigopiano avalanche victim Alessandro Giancaterino at San Nicola church in Farindola, in the Abruzzo region of Italy on January 24th. Photograph: Alessandro Di Meo/EPA

The funeral of Hotel Rigopiano avalanche victim Alessandro Giancaterino at San Nicola church in Farindola, in the Abruzzo region of Italy on January 24th. Photograph: Alessandro Di Meo/EPA

 

Public prosecutor Cristina Tedeschini is investigating the effectiveness of the rescue services, the level of avalanche warnings and the planning permission granted to the Hotel Rigopiano in the wake of the Abruzzo disaster in Italy.  With the search for survivors still ongoing, 15 people are still missing, 11 have been rescued, while 14 bodies have been retrieved from the collapsed hotel. 

The public prosecutor’s office in nearby Pescara opened an investigation within 24 hours of the Hotel Rigopiano, near Farindola being destroyed by a huge avalanche. Experts calculate the avalanche weighed 120,000 tons, was about 500 metres wide and would have been travelling at 50-100 km per hour. It was as if the hotel had been hit by 4,000 container lorries.

The judicial investigation will focus on the hotel’s planning permission.   Research group Forum H20 Abruzzo claimed the hotel had been built on land which itself contained the debris and ruins of previous avalanches, concluding: 

“[The hotel] . . .was built in an area which had been raised up by the rubble that comes down the mountain channel.   In short, it was like being in the barrel of a gun which somebody then fired”.

The position of the hotel, at the foot of the Gran Sasso mountain, has already prompted one court case.   Built in the Gran Sasso national park in 1972 and then expanded in the years after 2000, the Rigopiano was at the centre of a 2013-2016 court case in which investigative magistrates questioned the nature of the rebuilding permission.

In particular, the magistrates questioned a September 2008 Farindola village council ruling which “condoned” the illegal occupation of public land.  Two Farindola mayors, two town council officials and two local builders were all brought to court on bribery and corruption charges, with magistrates arguing that the rezoning of the hotel had been influenced by “sweeteners”, including bribes and job offers.

In 2016, however, all the defendants were acquitted and the case was dropped as the statute of limitations had expired.   

Other questions concern the efficiency of the advance alarm and the rescue services in last week’s blizzards which saw snowfalls of 2-4 metres on the evening of the avalanche.    Given that the area around the Gran Sasso is rated a 4 out of 5 avalanche danger by Meteomont, the national snow service, should evacuation alarms have been raised early last week?   In an area of intense seismic activity, did public officials and tourist industry workers underestimate the impending danger or were they overwhelmed by a huge unpredictable natural disaster?

Abruzzo was struck simultaneously by a blizzard and at least three serious earthquake tremors.     And for much of the day of the blizzard, Farindola village council was not contactable, with phone and internet connections cut off by the snowfall.   

Farindola’s “turbine-style” powerful snow plough had been out of order for 12 days, stuck in a garage for repairs after it broke down following intense work.   The guests at the Rigopiano were waiting, bags packed, ready to leave last Wednesday when the avalanche struck.   They were waiting for a snow plough summoned by the hotel but the avalanche arrived first.   The delay in the arrival of the snow plough will be another difficult question in the Pescara investigation.

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