Italy avalanche toll at 16 as helicopter crash adds to pain

Six people aboard an emergency rescue helicopter are killed in a crash in central Italy, according to local television.
The wreck of an helicopter following a crash on Jan 24, 2017 in the mountains near the ski resort of Campo Felice, central Italy.
The wreck of an helicopter following a crash on Jan 24, 2017 in the mountains near the ski resort of Campo Felice, central Italy. PHOTO: AFP

FARINDOLA, Italy (AFP) - The toll from an avalanche that swamped an Italian mountain hotel rose to 16 dead and 13 missing Tuesday (Jan 24) as a nearby helicopter crash claimed the lives of six people and dealt another blow to a region reeling from earthquakes and the heaviest snowfall in decades.

The emergency response helicopter came down in thick fog near Campo Felice, a popular ski resort 120 kilometres east of Rome, during the evacuation of an injured skier.

A loud explosion was heard and broadcasters later showed pictures of the charred shell of the aircraft. Police said the bodies of the six victims, thought to include two pilots, medical staff and the skier, had been recovered from the snow around the crash scene.

Campo Felice, located at 710 metres (2,330 feet) altitude but with pistes up to just over 2,000 metres, is close to the epicentres of earthquakes that struck the region last Wednesday and were followed by the killer avalanche.

The tally of bodies found in the ruins of the Hotel Rigopiano rose to 16 on the sixth day of an increasingly forlorn search through the snow-covered wreckage.

Eleven staff and guests survived the disaster. Two of them are men who were outside when the avalanche struck, while nine others, including four children, were rescued on Friday (Jan 20).

"We won't stop searching until we are certain there is none left under the ruins," said Luigi D'Angelo of Italy's civil protection agency.

"We are still digging into the heart of the building, the zone between the kitchens, the bar and the entrance hall. We're going to keep going until we have found everyone."

Italian authorities are investigating the chain of events leading to the avalanche to see if the tragedy could or should have been avoided.

A preliminary manslaughter investigation has been opened with the prosecutor in charge looking into whether environmental risks were properly taken into account during the construction and subsequent renovation of the hotel.

Events on the day of the disaster itself, when guests were unable to leave because of snow-blocked access roads, are also in the spotlight.

The local council had only one functioning road-clearance vehicle and had deployed it to reach isolated hamlets with elderly residents rather than clearing the road to the hotel.

A second snow plough had broken down earlier in the month and staff were awaiting authorisation to get a 25,000-euro ($26,800) repair done.

The hotel, a four-star spa facility where George Clooney once stayed, was built into a hillside at 1,200 metres altitude on the eastern slopes of Monte Gran Sasso. Campo Felice is on the other side of the near 3,000-metre peak that dominates the region.

The survivors pulled from the ruins on Friday were all treated for mild hypothermia, suggesting anyone still alive more than would have had to have found some way of keeping warm.

Rescuers have not ruled that out because they believe some rooms they are trying to reach by tunnelling through thick stone walls may be almost intact.

The avalanche occurred three hours after the last of four magnitude five earthquakes shook the region in the space of four hours.

Police have calculated the force of the impact on the three-storey stone and wood structure as being equivalent to it being hit by 4,000 fully-loaded trucks.

Funerals for two of the victims, the first to be laid to rest, were held Tuesday.