Wednesday 13 December 2017

'I've lost everything' - man's family trapped in avalanche

Criticism of slow response as 30 are feared dead after Italian hotel is buried in snow

Italian firefighters search for survivors after an avalanche buried a hotel near Farindola, central Italy. Photo: ANSA
Italian firefighters search for survivors after an avalanche buried a hotel near Farindola, central Italy. Photo: ANSA
A wall of snow engulfing the inside of the Hotel Rigopiano. Photo: AFP/Guardia di Finanza
A man is helped out of the Hotel Rigopiano. Photo: AFP/Guardia di Finanza
A hallway is blocked off by snow

Nick Squires in Penne

Giampero Parete had nipped out to the car to fetch some medicine for his wife's headache. As he turned back towards the four-star hotel in the mountains of central Italy, he saw the building become engulfed in a rolling wall of snow, ice, rocks and debris.

Inside was his wife, Adriana, and their two young children, Ludovica and Gianfilipo. They were still missing last night after the avalanche all but destroyed the mountain resort, with up to 30 people feared dead.

"I saw a large part of the hotel buried by the snow," Mr Parete said yesterday. "I've lost everything. I tried to get inside but I risked being trapped."

Italian media reported that three bodies had been pulled from the wreckage, while a fourth body had been located but not yet retrieved.

Prosecutors in Pescara, the nearest big city to the disaster area, opened a manslaughter investigation into the disaster, amid growing criticism of the Italian authorities' slow response.

The avalanche struck some time between 16.30 and 17.40 local time on Wednesday.

Accounts emerged of hotel guests messaging rescuers and friends for help, with at least one attempt at raising the alarm rebuffed for several hours. One couple trapped in the wreckage of the hotel reportedly sent a text message to rescue authorities saying: "Help, we're dying of cold."

Mr Parete called his boss, restaurant owner Quintino Marcella, at 5.30pm asking for help.

Mr Marcella said he immediately called police and the regional emergency co-ordination centre but officials assured him that the hotel had phoned two or three hours earlier to report that everything was fine.

He kept insisting and called other emergency numbers until someone took him seriously and mobilised a rescue starting at 8pm, more than two hours later. When rescuers on skis arrived early yesterday, they found just two people alive: Mr Parete and another guest, Fabio Salzetta.

The authorities defended their response, saying they were hampered by narrow roads that had been blocked by fallen trees and six-foot deep snow drifts.

A 50-strong team of police, firemen and alpine rescue experts was expected to work through the night, using picks, shovels and their bare hands to clear snow and rubble in the crumpled ruins of the 43-room hotel, which lies at an altitude of nearly 4,000ft in the Apennine mountains.

Emergency workers said they had heard no movement or cries for help. A temporary command post was set up in the nearby snow-bound village of Penne.

Video shot by rescue teams showed huge piles of snow and debris piled up in corridors, stairwells and an indoor pool area, having slammed through the walls of the building.

Aerial video shot by helicopter crews showed rescue workers on top of the snow-covered hotel, digging holes down to try to get in.

Rescue efforts were impeded by several feet of snow that has fallen in the past week, as Italy endures one of its coldest winters on record. The avalanche was believed to have been caused by four powerful earthquakes that hit the region on Wednesday.

"This is a much bigger avalanche than the ones we are used to dealing with, and it has different challenges because of the trees, rocks and rubble mixed in with the snow," Valter Milan, a member of Italy's Alpine Rescue Service, said.

Rescuers hoped to find people alive under the mangled wreckage of the luxury hotel, he said. "There is still hope. We're working as quickly as we can but in a very organised way," Mr Milan said.

"We can't use bulldozers or other heavy machinery because there would be a risk of crushing people if they are still alive beneath the rubble."

Three teams of sniffer dogs were being used but they were finding conditions challenging. "There are lots of air pockets down there, which confuses them," the officer said.

There was a danger of fresh avalanches and snow, and temperature conditions were being monitored.

The mountains and valleys of central Italy have been hit by multiple earthquakes in the past few months - a huge tremor on August 24 killed about 300 people in the town of Amatrice and surrounding villages. There was another powerful quake in October and the region has been rattled by more than 45,000 aftershocks since.

As heavy vehicles tried to reach the Hotel Rigopiano to help with the rescue, criticism mounted over the response to Wednesday's quakes, one a magnitude 5.7, and days of unusually heavy snow that blanketed the region.

Paolo Gentiloni, the prime minister, tried to brush off criticism of the rescue efforts and urged authorities to redouble their efforts to reach people who have been left isolated by the quakes and snow, which in some places is six feet deep.

More than 100,000 people in the region are now without power.

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