Emergency crews were cheered on Monday by the discovery of three puppies who had survived for days under tons of snow - giving them new hope for the 23 people still missing in the Italian avalanche disaster.
The first human survivors, meanwhile, were released from the hospital as questions intensified into whether Italian authorities underestimated the risks facing the snowbound resort in the hours before a deadly avalanche.
Five days after up to 60,000 tons of snow, rocks and uprooted trees ploughed into the Hotel Rigopiano in central Italy, rescue crews were still digging by hand or with shovels and chainsaws in hopes of finding alive some of the 23 people still buried.
An excavator reached the site, north east of Rome, to speed up the search.
Firefighter spokesman Fabio German said the three puppies showed conditions under the snow could still support life.
Emergency crews have been hoping the missing may have found air pockets under the debris, and the snow itself had insulated them from the frigid temperatures.
So far nine people have been rescued from the Hotel Rigopiano and six people have died.
The first survivors were released on Monday from a hospital in the nearby city of Pescara, including 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. Surrounded by her parents, she said she felt fine.
More than two days have passed since anyone has been pulled out alive from the hotel, and rescue crews were still trying to recover the body of the sixth known victim from the rubble.
Conditions at the site were deteriorating, with the metres of heavy snow turning to ice.
Firefighter spokesman Luca Cari said emergency crews were working with an "operational hypothesis" that people might still be alive, but he stressed "we are fighting against time".
"We know we need to work fast, but in relation to an environment that doesn't allow for fast intervention," he said on Sky TG24.
The investigation intensified, meanwhile, into whether local government officials underestimated the threat facing the hotel, which was already covered with two metres of snow, had no phone service and had dwindling gas supplies when a series of earthquakes rocked central Italy on the morning of January 18.
Italian newspapers on Monday reproduced what they said was an email sent by the hotel owner to local and provincial authorities that afternoon asking for help because "the situation has become worrisome".
"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."