Italy avalanche: Three bodies found, many feared dead at hotel
Thirty people were reportedly in Abruzzo building, which was pushed 30ft down hill
A huge avalanche has engulfed a luxury mountain hotel in central Italy after a series of strong earthquakes rocked the area, burying up to 30 people under tonnes of snow and debris, officials say.
Italian media said three bodies had been retrieved from the site. Rescue workers declined to comment on the reports, but said they had yet to find any sign of life.
The Civil Protection department chief said the search for victims and possible survivors would continue through the night.
“There is always hope, if there were no hope the rescuers wouldn’t give everything they’ve got,” Fabrizio Curcio told reporters.
He said his teams would “continue to do everything possible during the night”, even though conditions were far more difficult than in daytime.
The gabled peaks of parts of the roof and a row of windows were the only sections of the four-storey Hotel Rigopiano still visible after the wall of snow smashed into the four-star spa resort early on Wednesday evening.
Local authorities said about 30 people had been in the building at the time, including two children, but more than 20 hours later, only a couple of survivors had been found.
“The hotel is almost completely destroyed. We’ve called out but we’ve heard no replies, no voices,” said Antonio Crocetta, a member of the Alpine Rescue squad who was on the scene.
“We’re digging and looking for people,” he said, from the isolated location on the Gran Sasso mountain in the central Abruzzo region.
Tore through wall
Rescue workers entered what appeared to be a lobby decorated with oil paintings and plants, where a landslide had torn through a wall, television footage showed.
Mattresses and furniture were spotted dozens of metres away, local media reported, and sniffer dogs were brought to the area to help locate possible survivors.
So far, only two people who were staying at the hotel are known to have survived.
Mr Parete’s wife and two children are thought to remain trapped in the hotel.
Speaking in obvious distress from his hospital bed in nearby Pescara, he said on Thursday morning: “I am alive only because I went out to get something from the car . . . 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 . . .”
It is feared that not only the building’s collapse but also the sub-zero temperatures will make survival almost impossible for those trapped inside.
Rescue workers had also picked up a text message from one couple whose text read: “Help us, we’re dying of cold in here . . .”
Prime minister Paolo Gentiloni called for national unity, saying Italy was caught in an “unprecedented vice” of earthquakes and heavy snows simultaneously.
Snow ploughs struggled
On Thursday, the rescue operation was hampered by the metres of snow which had fallen on the Gran Sasso in recent days.
Drifts made snow as deep as five metres (16ft) in some places and snow ploughs struggled to cut a path up winding mountain roads.
The first rescuers only managed to arrive at 4.30am (3.30am Irish time) after having to ski through a blizzard to reach the site.
After dawn broke, emergency services sent in helicopters.
A base camp for rescue workers was set up in the town of Penne, some 10km away, where ambulances waited.
The avalanche shunted the 43-room hotel, which is 1,200m (4,000 ft) above sea level, some 10m (30ft) down the hill, according to media reports.
The disaster struck just hours after four earthquakes with a magnitude of above 5.0 hit central Italy, sparking fears over possible avalanches.
Italian media said guests at the hotel had checked out and were waiting for a snow plough to arrive to open up the road and let them down the mountain. However, the avalanche struck before they had been able to leave.
If ever there was a tragic “perfect storm”, this was it.
In an area already struck last summer by an August earthquake in which 297 people died, rescue workers have had immense difficulty dealing with the combined effect of the current blizzard conditions and the impact of three major tremors on Wednesday.
Seismologists and rescue workers are convinced the tremors, which were clearly felt as far away as Rome, provoked the avalanche.
The Hotel Rigopiano sits at the foot of the Gran Sasso mountain, a region popular with skiiers in the winter and with hikers in the summer.
The Gran Sasso is also famous for having been the place where fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was briefly imprisoned in 1943 before he was rescued by Nazi forces.
On Thursday morning, the initial rescue force of 20 men set out with seven snow vehicles and six ambulances.
Nine kilometres from the Hotel Rigopiano, the vehicles were forced to stop as the rest of the road was blocked by huge snow drifts and fallen trees.
At that point, the specialist mountain rescue force was forced to continue on ski, eventually arriving at the stricken hotel at approximately 4.30am.
They found the entire structure buried. Overhead TV footage, taken from a rescue helicopter, showed a large mound of snow where half of the four-star hotel once stood.
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.
On Wednesday night alone, approximately two metres of snow fell in the Abruzzo region.
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 on Wednesday night and 7am on Thursday, 80 tremors were registered in the region by the Institute of Vulcanology.
Additional reporting: Reuters