A huge avalanche swallowed up 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 said on Thursday. 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 hotel is about 90 kilometres from the epicentre of the earthquakes at Montereale, a small village south of Amatrice, which was hit in August by an earthquake that resulted in the deaths of about 250 people.
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, including two children, had been in the building at the time, but more than 20 hours later, only a couple of survivors had been found — two men who had been outside when the disaster struck.
“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 told Reuters by phone from the isolated location in the Gran Sasso mountain range in the central Abruzzo region.
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.
Messages from inside
As rescue attempts continued, criticism mounted over the response to Wednesday’s quakes and days of unusually heavy snowfall. Accounts emerged of hotel guests messaging rescuers and friends for help, with at least one attempt at raising the alarm rebuffed for several hours.
“Help, we’re dying of cold,” one couple wrote rescuers from the hotel, according to the ANSA news agency.
Giampiero Parete, a chef vacationing at the hotel, called his boss when the avalanche struck, and begged for him to mobilize rescue crews because his wife, Adriana, and two children, Ludovica and Gianfilippo, were trapped inside, employer Quintino Marcella told The Associated Press.
“I am alive because I went to get something from my car,” Parete, told medical staff.
“He said the hotel was submerged and to call rescue crews,” Marcella said. He said he phoned police and the area prefect’s office, but that no one believed him. “The prefect’s office said it wasn’t true, because everything was OK at the hotel.”
Marcella said he insisted, and called other emergency numbers until someone finally took him seriously and mobilized a rescue, starting at 8 p.m., more than two hours later.
Rescuers on skis arrived at the hotel in Florindola in the early-morning hours of Thursday to find two people alive: Parete and Fabio Salzetta, who was identified by Italian media as a maintenance worker at the hotel. There were no other signs of life, with rescue crews saying they yelled out but heard no replies, and were using rescue dogs.
Parete was being treated for hypothermia at a hospital in Pescara. The Romanian Foreign Ministry reported three Romanian citizens missing in the hotel — an adult and two children, who were believed to be Parete’s family.
Salzetta had also sent a message out: “Some walls were knocked down,” Corriere della Sera reported. And: “I’m outside with a maintenance worker but you can’t see anything of the hotel, there’s only a wall of snow in front of me.”
Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni called for national unity, saying Italy was caught in an “unprecedented vice” of earthquakes and heavy snows simultaneously.
Snow hampers rescue efforts
The rescue operation was hampered by metres of snow that have fallen on the Gran Sasso in recent days. Drifts made snow as deep as five metres in some places and snow plows struggled to cut a path up winding mountain roads.
The first rescuers only managed to arrive at 4.30 a.m. 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 10 kilometres away, where ambulances waited.
The avalanche shunted the 43-room hotel, which is 1,200 metres above sea level, some 10 metres 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 about possible avalanches.
Italian media said guests at the hotel had checked out and were waiting for a snowplow to arrive to open up the road and let them down the mountain. However, the avalanche struck before they had been able to leave.