Rescuers have pulled out six people alive from under the ruins of an Italian mountain hotel engulfed in a devastating avalanche two days ago, officials said on Friday.
Emergency workers were able to speak to the survivors and called for helicopters to evacuate them after more than 40 hours under the snow-covered rubble of the Hotel Rigopiano, in central Italy.
Federica Chiavaroli, a junior minister at the Justice ministry, confirmed the dramatic development to reporters in the nearby town of Penne, where the rescue effort was being coordinated and some relatives were anxiously awaiting news of missing loved ones.
“Six people have been found alive and they are being pulled out,” the minister told AFP.
Another government minister, Filippo Bubbico, said one of the survivors located around 1100 am (1000 GMT) was a young girl.
More than 25 people, including several children, were thought to have been in the hotel when it was hit by a massive wall of snow.
Updated estimates on Friday suggested the total could be as high as 34 — some 20 to 22 guests, seven or eight staff and an unknown number of casual visitors to the four-star, three-storey hotel.
Two dead bodies have been removed from the ruins since the first rescuers reached the hotel in the early hours of Thursday.
– Agonisingly slow progress –
Most of the guests were thought to have been in or around the hotel’s entrance when the avalanche struck late Wednesday afternoon.
They had been waiting for transport to take them home following earthquakes in the region earlier in the day.
The miraculous news of the survivors emerged as scores of mountain police, fire fighters and other emergency personnel worked round-the-clock shifts in a delicate and desperate hunt for signs of life.
Progress was agonisingly slow with rescuers wary of triggering further movements in the snow piled up on top of the masonry that could endanger anyone still clinging to life under the rubble.
Lorenzo Gagliardi, one of the first mountain police officers to reach the scene on Thursday morning, had earlier recounted the apocalyptic scene waiting for him in an interview with AFPTV.
Two men who had been outside the hotel were found alive in their car but two other people located under the ruins could not be saved.
Gagliardi and his colleagues had trekked for more than eight kilometres through two-metre high snow to get to the hotel around 4:00 am on Thursday.
“There was practically nothing of the building left, just a little white hill,” he said.
– Deafening noise –
“The first thing we heard was the hum of a generator that had turned itself on,” he said.
“Then we saw this car. It was in an open space 50 metres (55 yards) from the hotel and the engine was running. It was the only one not swept away by the avalanche.
“Inside there were two men, Giampiero Parete and Fabio Salzetta, still alive thanks to the car’s heating.”
Parete, a 38-year-old chef, told the rescuers that his wife, son and daughter had been in the hotel.
“We were ready to leave at 2 pm. We were in the foyer with our bags, we’d paid the bill and were waiting for a snow plough to clear the road,” he later told reporters after treatment for hypothermia.
“They told us it would be there at 3pm. but for unexplained reasons that was put back to 7pm.
“My wife told me she had a headache so I went to the car to get some pills for her.
“As soon as I got out I felt this wind and then this deafening noise of trees cracking, trunks cascading down the hillside.
“Then the hotel collapsed under this enormous wave of snow and half the mountain. My car was the only thing that escaped, by a few centimetres.”