- Associated Press - Friday, January 20, 2017

FARINDOLA, Italy (AP) — Five people were found alive in the rubble of an Italian hotel Friday, two days after an avalanche tore through the mountain resort and trapped an estimated 30 people inside, rescue crews reported.

“We found five people alive. We’re pulling them out. Send us a helicopter,” a rescuer said over firefighters’ radio, overheard by AP photographer Gregorio Borgia who was making his way on foot toward the disaster site.

The radio report, which first came in at around 11 a.m. (1000 GMT), was repeated three more times, with firefighters saying the survivors were still under the rubble and warning the helicopter might have to wait until they were extracted.

Three helicopters landed at the scene, including an air ambulance, said Borgia and AP Producer Paolo Santalucia, who were turned away by the rescue crews about a kilometer (half a mile) from the remains of the Hotel Rigopiano, located about 30 miles (45 kilometers) from the coastal city of Pescara, at an altitude of about 4,000 feet (1,200 meters).

The ANSA news agency said the number of possible new survivors was six.

About 30 people were trapped inside the luxury Hotel Rigopiano when the avalanche hit on Wednesday afternoon, with two people initially surviving the devastation and reporting the emergency.

Search and rescue teams had maintained the hope of finding survivors even though the avalanche dumped up to five meters (17 feet) of snow on the hotel.

“We are hoping that the ceiling collapsed partially in some places and that someone remained underneath,” rescuer Lorenzo Gagliardi told SKY Tg24.

Two bodies were recovered on the first day of searching and RAI state TV reported two more had been located but not yet removed.

The operations have been hampered by difficulty in accessing the remote hotel. Workers have been clearing a seven-kilometer (5.5-mile) road to bring in heavier equipment but it can handle only one-way traffic.

Alpine corps rescuer Milan Walter told SKY that they were considering whether to ferry more personnel in by helicopter as was done Thursday.

A convoy of rescue vehicles made slow progress to the hotel, blocked by snow piled three meters (10 feet) high in some places, fallen trees and rocks. By late Thursday, only 25 vehicles had arrived, along with 135 rescue workers, and civil protection authorities said part of the night was spent trying to widen the road.

The first rescue teams had arrived on skis early Thursday, and firefighters were dropped in by helicopter. Snowmobiles were also being mobilized.

Days of heavy snowfall had knocked out electricity and phone lines in many central Italian towns and hamlets, and the hotel phones went down early Wednesday, just as the first of four powerful earthquakes struck the region.

It wasn’t clear if the quakes triggered the avalanche. But emergency responders said the force of the massive snow slide collapsed a wing of the hotel that faced the mountain and rotated another off its foundation, pushing it downhill.

“The situation is catastrophic,” said Gagliardi of the Alpine rescue service, who was among the first at the scene. “The mountain-facing side is completely destroyed and buried by snow: the kitchen, hotel rooms, hall.”

One of the survivors reported that the guests had all checked out and were waiting for the road to be cleared to be able to leave. The snow plow scheduled for midafternoon never arrived, and the avalanche hit sometime around 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Prosecutors have opened a manslaughter investigation in the tragedy, and among the hypotheses being pursued is whether the avalanche threat wasn’t taken seriously enough, according to Italian media.

Farindola Mayor Ilario Lacchetta said the hotel had 24 guests, four of them children, and 12 employees were onsite at the time of the avalanche.

An Alpine rescue team was the first to arrive on cross-country skis after a seven-kilometer, two-hour journey, finding Giampaolo Parete, a guest who escaped the avalanche when he went to his car to get something, and Fabio Salzetta, a hotel maintenance worker, in a car in the resort’s parking lot.

Parete, whose wife and two children remain among the missing, was taken to a hospital while Salzetta stayed behind with rescuers to help identify where guests might be buried and how crews could enter the buildings, rescuers said.

The mountainous region of central Italy has been struck by a series of quakes since August that destroyed homes and historic centers in dozens of towns and hamlets. A deadly quake in August killed nearly 300. No one died in strong aftershocks in October, largely because population centers had already been evacuated.


Nicole Winfield in Rome and Colleen Barry in Milan contributed to this report.

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