Officials fear many deaths in avalanche-hit hotel in Italy | News | DW | 19.01.2017
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Officials fear many deaths in avalanche-hit hotel in Italy

Rescuers fear several people have been killed after a wall of snow buried a hotel in the mountains of central Italy. The disaster is one of many emergencies caused by winter storms and earthquakes in the region.

More than 24 hours after an avalanche plowed into a ski hotel in central Italy on Wednesday evening, rescue authorities said they had recovered just two bodies. About 30 more staff and guests were still missing. 

The affected hotel Rigopiano was in the mountain town of Farindola on the lower sections of the Gran Sasso mountain in Abruzzo, a region hit by several powerful earthquakes on Wednesday.

The head of Italy's Civil Protection Agency, Fabrizio Curcio, told reporters at a press conference that the scene was "apocalyptic," adding that rescue teams faced "prohibitive" conditions.

Video footage shot by first responders showed a mass of snow mixed with debris had filled rooms and hallways up to the ceilings.

An emergency services official told DW that as well as the avalanche, heavy snow and power outages across the region stretched human resources, making it difficult to respond to requests for assistance and isolating numerous towns and villages.

When there's heavy snowfall, "we try to tell people to stay in their homes, if they are secure, obviously. And in the areas of quakes, people should leave their homes. Putting together these two elements is extremely complicated," Curcio added.

However, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni called on authorities to redouble efforts to reach people isolated by the heavy snow and latest earthquakes to rattle the region.

'Many emergencies to deal with'

Various Italian authorities, including the mayor's offices of nearby towns and the regional president's office, urged patience as they responded to the tragic avalanche in Farindola. 

"We can confirm one survivor, but others may be trapped inside. We don't really know how many may be dead or alive at the moment. We are moving forward with rescue operations despite snowfall," a national fire rescue spokesman told DW.

Abruzzo, which straddles the Apennine mountain range, had snowfalls of up to 4 meters (13.1 feet), four strong earthquakes and rains that led to flooding in some areas. Local residents of impacted areas reported fuel and food shortages.

"There are many emergencies to deal with," a fire rescue official at the state office of the national authority told DW.  

Titti Postiglione, head of the Civil Protection emergency office, said more avalanches were possible in the region because the
temperature was rising, and more earthquakes were also possible.

"This is an enormously complex rescue operation," she said.

Snow complicating rescue efforts

The heavy snowfall in Abruzzo blocked road access to the Rigopiano hotel, forcing ambulances to remain parked 9 kilometers (5.5 miles) away. According to local media, mountain rescue crews only reached the hotel at about 4:30 a.m. local time on Wednesday morning after a 10-kilometer (6-mile) cross-country ski trek.

The force of the avalanche moved the hotel 10 meters (33 feet). Images from the Central Emergency and Rescue Department's Twitter account showed the three-story hotel nearly entirely covered by snow. 

In police helicopter video footage, the hotel was also nearly impossible to distinguish from the snow-covered mountainside it sat on.

Survivors 'dying of cold'

Guests trapped inside the hotel sent desperate texts to emergency numbers, local media reported. 

"Help, we're dying of cold," one couple wrote on Wednesday evening. Rescuers' calls to the hotel, however, went unanswered.

One survivor was hospitalized after rescue crews pulled him from his car, which had been parked outside the hotel. Giampaolo Parete, 38, had gone to his vehicle to retrieve something when the avalanche struck.

"I am alive because I went to get something from my car," he told medics, according to local media. Parete believed his wife and children had been buried by the snow. 

Local officials confirmed the rescue of a second survivor, who was also outside the building at the moment of the avalanche's impact.

It was not clear whether Wednesday's earthquakes triggered the avalanche. Officials attributed one death to the tremors after the body of an individual was found under building debris in the town of Castel Castagna in the Teramo province.



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