World First Look

Italian avalanche: Rescuers find eight survivors – and a ray of hope

When first responders first reached Hotel Rigopiano, rescue crews feared the worst for the 30 people trapped inside.

This frame from video shows Italian firefighters extracting a woman alive from under snow and debris of an hotel that was hit by an avalanche on Wednesday, in Rigopiano, central Italy, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017.
Italian Firefighters/ANSA/AP | Caption

Contrary to fast fading hopes of locating any survivors, rescuers found eight people alive on Friday as they worked to free them from the wreckage of a luxury mountain hotel buried under 16 feet of snow and debris after an avalanche in central Italy on Wednesday,

At time of writing, Titti Postiglione, a Civil Protection official told reporters with Reuters and other news agencies on the ground that workers had already pulled two of the eight clear and were digging to free the other six.

"Finding these people gives us further hope there are other survivors," Dr. Postiglione said, as news reports also confirmed two bodies had already been removed from the site with another two located.

More than 30 people including four children are believed to have been inside the hotel at the time the avalanche struck on Wednesday. The eight survivors were located in the hotel's kitchen, which wasn’t destroyed like much of the rest of four-star Hotel Rigopiano, in Italy’s Abruzzo region. 

The avalanche hit the resort at the foot of the Gran Sasso mountain during a heavy snowstorm following four earthquakes above magnitude 5 earlier that day. It continued a string of recent quakes dating back to last year in the region that have noticeably reshaped the landscape, including one last August that killed 300 people and resulted in 45,000 aftershocks. 

Two male guests survived Wednesday’s avalanche because they were outside at the time it struck.

"I am alive because I went to get something from my car," one of the two survivors, Giampiero Parete, whose wife and two children are still missing, told medical staff, according to la Repubblica.

Mr. Parete was vacationing at the hotel with his family, and made a desperate call to his boss, Quintino Marcella, asking him to alert emergency personnel, Mr. Marcella told the Associated Press.

Mr. Marcella said that calls to the police and the local prefect's office went unheeded; echoing similar criticisms from locals who said the emergency response was too slow. "The prefect's office said it wasn't true, because everything was OK at the hotel."

On Thursday, first responders arrived on skis around 11 hours after the avalanche, and firefighters were later dropped in by helicopter.

An investigation into the emergency response to the tragedy has already begun in a Pescara court. 

Italy's civil protection agency said the search had continued with searchlights throughout Thursday night and would accelerate with the arrival of daylight.

The search had been hampered by snow blocking the only road in, concerns that buildings might collapse, and fear more avalanches could be triggered by the work. Officials said the road was widened overnight to bring in heavier vehicles to aid the search.

This report contains material from Reuters.