PENNE (Italy) • A huge avalanche ploughed into a luxury mountain hotel in central Italy after a series of strong earthquakes rattled the area, and up to 30 people might be buried under the snow, officials have said.
Rescue workers using flashlights on their helmets battled blizzard conditions during the night to reach the isolated hotel on skis. They arrived in the dark to find most of the four-storey structure under a mountain of snow and debris.
"Around 30 people are unaccounted for, between guests and workers at the Hotel Rigopiano in Farindola," Mr Fabrizio Curcio, head of Italy's civil protection department, told reporters yesterday.
Italy's Ansa news agency reported that one body was recovered, but there was no immediate confirmation of this. More than 12 hours after the wall of snow smashed into the four-star hotel, which is some 1,200m above sea level, only two survivors had been accounted for.
"I am alive because I went to get something from my car," one of the two, Mr Giampiero Parete, told medical staff, according to la Repubblica website. His wife and children were still in the hotel.
The rescue operation was hampered by up to 5m of snow which has fallen on the Gran Sasso mountain range in central Abruzzo in recent days, blocking access roads.
"We haven't been able to do too much. The structure has collapsed. It's more like a pile of rubble than a hotel," said Mr Antonio Crocetta, a member of the Alpine Rescue squad who was on the scene. "What is left of the hotel is in danger of collapse. We've called out but we've heard no replies, no voices. We're digging and looking for people," he told Reuters by phone.
A base camp for rescue workers was set up in the town of Penne, some 10km away, where ambulances waited for earth-moving vehicles to clear the winding, snow- clogged road leading to the hotel.
The avalanche collapsed part of the four-storey hotel, which had 43 rooms, shunting it some 10m down the hill, according to media reports.
The disaster struck on Wednesday evening, just hours after four earthquakes with a magnitude of above 5 hit central Italy, sparking fears about possible avalanches.
The first rescuers only managed to arrive at 4.30am yesterday after they had to ski through a heavy snowstorm to reach the site. After dawn broke, emergency services sent in helicopters.
"We're dropping our rescue units down by helicopter and they are starting to dig," said Mr Luca Cari, spokesman for the national fire brigades. An aerial shot of the hotel released by the fire brigade showed just the top floor and the roof visible above a thick blanket of snow.
The hotel is located around 90km from the epicentre of the quakes at Montereale, a small village south of Amatrice, the town devastated in last August's earthquake in which nearly 300 people died.
Avalanche warnings were issued across the region dominated by Gran Sasso, a majestic 2,912m peak. The area has numerous small ski resorts popular with day-trippers from Rome and urban centres on Italy's east coast.
REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE