PENNE, Italy (AFP) - Survivors of Italy's avalanche disaster on Sunday (Jan 22) recounted how they ate snow to stay hydrated and sung to keep their spirits up while huddling in pitch black, cramped cavities in the mangled wreckage of the Hotel Rigopiano.
Their traumatic tales emerged as rescuers said they hoped to find some of the 23 people still unaccounted for, more than 48 hours after they last detected signs of life in the icy ruins.
"Even if there are no signs of life, you could drill through a wall and suddenly there'd be contact. That's what happened with the other survivors," said firefighters spokesman Luca Cari.
A Senegalese man who worked at the hotel was added to the list of missing after a statement by one of the survivors. He had not been on staff lists and no friends or family had reported him as missing.
The avalanche hit the hotel at dusk Wednesday (Jan 18) with a force police have calculated as the equivalent of 4,000 fully-loaded articulated lorries hurtling down a steep slope at 100 kilometres per hour.
Four days later, rescue teams were working round the clock with only two-hour rest breaks to ensure the first responders most familiar with the layout maximise their time on site.
The risk of another avalanche remained high, as snow and fog continued to hamper the rescue effort in the mountains of central Italy.
Cari said he was confident some rooms at the back of the hotel were intact because of the protection they had from a thick wall.
"The problem is getting to them," he said. "The holes we are climbing down into are narrow, and then we have to break through very thick walls to get into rooms, hoping to find someone inside."
The survivors extracted so far, five adults and four children, were trapped for 40 hours before rescuers made contact.
"I'm Georgia and I'm alive," student Georgia Galassi, 22, recalled saying. "It was the most beautiful thing I've ever said."
Galassi and her boyfriend Vincenzo Forti, 25, had to wait another 18 hours before they were finally extracted, unscathed, early Saturday, the rescuers having concentrated on the children.
The survivors were all waiting to leave the hotel when the avalanche sent them flying.
"When I came round we were on the ground, bruised but not really hurt," Georgia said. "It was pitch black, the only thing we could hear were the voices of the others near us, echoing."
Her boyfriend told visitors on Sunday that he, Georgia and Giampaolo Matrone, whose arm was crushed by the impact, were squashed together in an area of around one square metre.
Using mobile phone lights before the batteries ran out, the survivors established they were spread across four separate pockets.
One of them, Francesca Bronzi, was alone, unable to stand because of a giant wooden beam.
"It was very claustrophobic but the worst thing was the thirst, I was constantly wetting my lips with ice and dirty snow," she said.
Another collapsed beam had come to a halt centimetres above the head of eight-year-old Gianfilippo Parete, according to his mother Adriana.
"I hugged him and I think we stayed like that for the rest of the time, day and night." Gianfilippo's sister, six-year-old Ludovica, was with two other boys in the adjacent remains of the hotel games room.
"Fortunately the mamma could hear her daughter and help her to stay calm," Georgia said.
The student said her partner had emerged as the leader of the group, singing whenever spirits flagged.
"He kept us all up. He gave the group strength," she said. "I just felt like I was trapped in a box. I cried a lot."
As well as the nine pulled out, there were two survivors who were outside the hotel when the avalanche struck. Six bodies had been found by Sunday evening, including both parents of one of the boy survivors.
The disaster followed powerful earthquakes in the region earlier Wednesday combined with snowfalls not seen in half a century.
An investigation has been opened into the disaster. It could lead to manslaughter charges with questions mounting over whether the luxury spa should ever have been built, and if it should have been evacuated before the avalanche.
Broadcaster Rai reported Sunday that the hotel's owner has asked authorities to help evacuate the hotel before the avalanche.
It quoted an email in which he described the situation as "worrying" and the guests as terrified because of the tremors and heavy snow.