The death toll from the avalanche which buried an Italian hotel has risen to nine after emergency crews pulled out three more bodies.
pirits were lifted on Monday when three wiggling white sheepdog puppies were rescued from the Hotel Rigopiano, even as the search for 20 people still missing dragged on.
But questions intensified on whether Italian authorities underestimated the risks facing the snowbound resort in the hours before the deadly avalanche.
Five days after about 60,000 tons of snow, rocks and uprooted trees smashed into the Rigopiano, north east of Rome, rescue crews were still digging by hand or with shovels and chainsaws in the hope of finding more survivors.
An excavator reached the site to speed up the search.
The discovery of the Abruzzo puppies in the boiler room lifted spirits, even as rescuers located a ninth body.
Jubilant emergency crews carried the pups out in their arms, with one firefighter burying his face in the fluffy white fur to give one of the dogs a kiss.
The puppies were born last month to the hotel's resident sheepdogs, Nuvola and Lupo, and were featured prominently on the hotel's Facebook page.
Their parents had found their own way out after Wednesday afternoon's avalanche.
"They just started barking very softly," said Sonia Marini, a member of the Forestry Corps.
"In fact, it was hard to find them right away because they were hidden, then we heard this very tiny bark and we saw them from a little hole the firefighters had opened in the wall.
"Then we expanded the hole and we pulled them out."
But firefighters spokesman Luca Cari stressed that the puppies were found in an isolated part of the hotel and did not necessarily signal any new hope for finding human survivors.
"We're happy to have saved them and these are important moments in a dramatic situation," he said.
"But I don't think there's much correlation with finding other people."
Emergency crews have been hoping that the 20 missing people may have found air pockets under the debris, and that the snow would insulate them from the frigid temperatures.
But three days have passed since anyone has been pulled out alive from the hotel and conditions at the site are deteriorating, with the heavy snow turning to ice.
Nine people have been rescued from the Rigopiano and the first survivors released from a hospital in the nearby city of Pescara on Monday included Giorgia Galassi and her boyfriend Vincenzo Forti.
"Thank you, thank you everyone!" Ms Galassi said as she waved from the front door of her parents' home in Giulianova, on the Adriatic coast.
Hotel guests Giampiero Parete, his wife and two children were also discharged.
It was Mr Parete who first sounded the alarm after he left the hotel by chance to go to his car, moments before the avalanche hit.
Still in hospital are one adult and two youngsters, Samuel Di Michelangelo and Edoardo Di Carlo.
Officials have confirmed that Edoardo's parents were killed, while Samuel's are still unaccounted for.
"Edoardo has an adult brother, so the brother will be given custody of him," Pescara hospital medical director Dr Rossano Di Luzio said.
"Samuel has his close relatives, grandparents at the moment, but we hope we can give him back to his parents."
Mr Cari said emergency crews were working with an "operational hypothesis" that people might still be alive, but said "we are fighting against time".
The investigation has deepened into whether local government officials underestimated the threat facing the hotel, which was covered with 6ft of snow, had no phone service and dwindling gas supplies when a series of earthquakes rocked central Italy on the morning of January 18.
Italian newspapers reproduced what they said was an email sent by the hotel owner to local and provincial authorities that afternoon, asking for help.
"The hotel guests are terrorised by the earthquakes and have decided to stay out in the open," Bruno Di Tommaso wrote.
"We've tried to do everything to keep them calm, but since they can't leave due to the blocked roads, they're prepared to spend the night in their cars."
The Pescara prefect's office has already has faced criticism after a restaurant owner said his calls reporting the avalanche were ignored.
Quintino Marcella said he called the office after receiving word from Mr Parete, who is one of his chefs.
Chief prosecutor Cristina Tedeschini said her investigation was looking into a host of issues, including the timing and content of communications, where the snowploughs were deployed, who was alerted when about the risks of avalanches and how authorities responded when the avalanche hit the hotel.
She also said she would look at whether building work should have been even operating under such conditions.
Ms Tedeschini said there were "incongruities" between when communications were received and when they were acted on, but stressed they may not have had a significant effect on the search effort, given that five days had passed and still the search was continuing.
She said "at most" the delay in launching the avalanche response was an hour, adding: "I don't see it as being highly relevant."
The president of the province, Antonio Di Marco, has confirmed he saw an email from Mr Di Tommaso and had arranged for a snowplough to clear the road that night, the ANSA news agency said.
The avalanche hit some time before 5.40pm, when Mr Marcella received the call from his chef.