'Miracle' as 10 found alive in hotel under avalanche
Ten people were miraculously found alive yesterday in the wreckage of an avalanche-hit mountain hotel after surviving two nights of sub-zero temperatures because the snow insulated them "like an igloo", Italian rescuers said.
The survivors, including three children, were found after tendrils of smoke emerged from the small attic space in which they had taken refuge when the 300-yard wide avalanche all but swept away the four-star Rigopiano Hotel in the Apennine mountains of the Abruzzo region on Wednesday.
Among those pulled from the hotel alive were the wife and son of Giampiero Parete, who was one of two survivors who raised the alarm on Wednesday night after leaving the hotel to fetch medication from his car moments before the avalanche hit.
Video footage released by rescuers showed eight-year-old Gianfilippo Parete, wearing blue snow trousers and a matching ski shirt, emerging from the structure and crews mussing his hair in celebration. His mother, Romanian-born Adriana Vranceanu, was pulled free at the same time. Last night the couple's six-year-old daughter, Ludovica, was also reported to have been rescued.
Rescuers were trying to extricate the remaining survivors from the rubble last night, with more children freed, according to reports. "We know they are there. We are in contact with a woman and two children," said Luca Cari, a fire service spokesman.
The survivors were ecstatic to be pulled out alive after spending two freezing nights inside the smashed wreckage of the hotel. "They called us angels when they saw us," said Marco Bini, a police alpine rescue expert. "They were so happy to see us. They couldn't believe their eyes. Their faces said it all. It was like they were reborn."
The smoke came from stoves that remained alight within the attic space.
"We heard no voices but we smelt a very strong smell of smoke," said Mr Bini. "We dug down into the snow with our hands. We found the top of a roof and opened it up with a drill. We discovered them in a very small space. It was a wonderful moment. The snow insulated them and protected them from the freezing temperatures outside. It wast like being in an igloo. This more than repays all our hard work."
Despite their ordeal, the survivors were uninjured.
"They seemed OK. They were in a surprisingly good state of health. When they have recovered we need to ask them where the other people might be. It's a really big area that we are searching so the information would help," said Mr Bini.
Rescuers said there was still a high risk of further avalanches because the temperature had risen slightly and snow was melting.
"We couldn't wish for any better news. It brings a feeling of pure joy. It's truly a miracle," said Federica Chiavaroli, a government official who was on the scene after the rescue effort. "This will encourage the rescuers to redouble their efforts."
The avalanche slammed into the hotel around 5pm on Wednesday, a day after central Italy was shaken by a series of powerful earthquakes which were felt as far away as Rome.
Rescue workers used thermal imaging equipment and microphones to try to detect any further signs of life beneath the mounds of snow, smashed tree trunks and rubble.
"This was an exceptional event," said Mr Cari, the fire service spokesman. "The area is covered in up to three metres of snow."
An elderly woman in the nearby town of Penne, where the rescue operation is based, said it was the heaviest snowfall for more than half a century.
The alarm was raised by Mr Parete, who by chance survived because he had stepped out of the hotel to retrieve some medicine for his wife.
Emergency services initially refused to believe there had been an avalanche and it was two hours later that rescuers were mobilised - a delay which is now the subject of an official investigation.
Days before the disaster, Meteomont, a national service for the prevention of avalanches, had said there was a level-four risk of avalanches in the region, with five the highest level. However, authorities issued no orders to evacuate the area.
Alpine rescue specialists from the Guardia di Finanza police force reached the hotel at 4.30am on Thursday after strapping on their skis and tramping 8km through a blizzard.
Lorenzo Gagliardi, head of the police ski team that reached the hotel in the middle of the night, said conditions were atrocious as his men trudged through the storm. They found a scene of devastation when they reached the resort, which had been flattened by tons of snow, rock and uprooted trees.
"There was almost nothing left of the hotel, it was just a big white mound," he said.
They found two survivors huddled in a car - Mr Parete, who was in shock and told them repeatedly that his wife and two children were inside, and Fabio Salzetta, a maintenance worker.
Two bodies have so far been recovered from the wreckage but up to 20 people are still missing. (© Daily Telegraph, London)