PENNE (Italy) • Two young girls were among eight survivors found yesterday in the ruins of an Italian hotel buried by an avalanche two days earlier, police said.
Emergency workers were able to speak to the survivors and have called for helicopters to evacuate them after more than 40 hours under the rubble of the Hotel Rigopiano, in central Italy.
Ms 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.
More than 25 people, including children, were thought to have been in the hotel when it was hit by a massive wall of snow.
Updated estimates yesterday suggested the total could be as high as 34 - some 20 or 22 guests, seven or eight staff and an unknown number of casual visitors to the four-star, three-storey hotel.
Most of the guests were in or around the hotel's entrance at the time the avalanche struck in the late afternoon on Wednesday. They had been waiting for transport to take them home following earthquakes in the region earlier in the day.
Two bodies have been removed from the ruins since the first rescuers reached the hotel in the early hours of Thursday.
Meanwhile, the rescuers have vowed to keep on searching for survivors, with search efforts hampered by heavy snow that blocked access roads to the remote site until the early hours of the morning after the avalanche hit.
"Firefighters and alpine rescuers are working tirelessly and now the army is doing everything to improve access to the route," Deputy Interior Minister Filippo Bubbico told reporters in Penne, where a camp for rescue workers has been set up.
Special army mountain rescue teams were seen riding in vehicles with caterpillar tracks.
Italian broadcasters showed images of piles of masonry and rubble in the entrance area of what they dubbed a "coffin hotel".
The region was hit by four seismic shocks with a magnitude of above 5 in the space of four hours on Wednesday.
Quake experts said the tremors almost certainly triggered the snowslide.
The hotel was located at an altitude of 1,200m around 90km east of the epicentres of Wednesday's earthquakes. They were also centred near Amatrice, the town devastated in an August quake, in which nearly 300 people died.
The quakes affected an area that straddles the regions of Lazio, Marche and Abruzzo, home to many remote mountain hamlets.
Although many residents were evacuated from their homes after last year's quakes, there were fears for families who had decided to stay and are now cut off.
Schools in the affected region have been closed until next week to allow structural safety checks to be carried out.
Italy straddles the Eurasian and African tectonic plates, making it vulnerable to seismic activity when they move.