Search continues at Italian hotel hit by avalanche

Italian firefighters search for survivors after an avalanche buried a hotel near Farindola, central Italy, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017. Rescue workers on skis reached a four-star spa hotel buried by an avalanche in earthquake-stricken central Italy Thursday, reporting no signs of life as they searched for around 30 people believed trapped inside. (Italian Firefighters/ANSA via Italian Firefighters)

FARINDOLA, Italy (AP) — Rescue crews continued to dig by hand Friday through meters of snow and debris in the search for some 30 people trapped inside a remote Italian mountain resort flattened by a huge avalanche following a series of strong earthquakes.

Two bodies have been recovered, and Italian state media reported another two had been located in the snow, as hopes of finding survivors dimmed.

The search and rescue operation after Wednesday’s avalanche has been hampered by snow blocking the only road to the Hotel Rigopiano and fears of triggering a fresh avalanche.

A convoy of rescue vehicles made slow progress to the hotel, blocked by snow piled three meters (10 feet) high in some places, fallen trees and rocks. By late Thursday, only 25 vehicles had arrived, along with 135 rescue workers, and civil protection authorities said part of the night was spent trying to widen the road.

The first rescue teams had arrived on skis early Thursday, and firefighters were dropped in by helicopter. Snowmobiles were also being mobilized.

Two people escaped the devastation at the Hotel Rigopiano in the quake-stricken mountains of central Italy and called for help. But it took hours for responders to arrive at the remote hotel, located about 30 miles (45 kilometers) from the coastal city of Pescara, at an altitude of about 3,940 feet (1,200 meters).

Days of heavy snowfall had knocked out electricity and phone lines in many central Italian towns and hamlets, and the hotel phones went down early Wednesday, just as the first of four powerful earthquakes struck the region.

It wasn’t clear if the quakes triggered the avalanche. But emergency responders said the force of the massive snow slide collapsed a wing of the hotel that faced the mountain and rotated another off its foundation, pushing it downhill.

“The situation is catastrophic,” said Marshall Lorenzo Gagliardi of the Alpine rescue service, who was among the first at the scene. “The mountain-facing side is completely destroyed and buried by snow: the kitchen, hotel rooms, hall.”

One of the survivors reported that the guests had all checked out and were waiting for the road to be cleared to be able to leave. The snow plow scheduled for midafternoon never arrived, and the avalanche hit sometime around 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Prosecutors have opened a manslaughter investigation in the tragedy, and among the hypotheses being pursued is whether the avalanche threat wasn’t taken seriously enough, according to Italian media.

Farindola Mayor Ilario Lacchetta estimated that more than 30 people were unaccounted for: the hotel had 24 guests, four of them children, and 12 employees were onsite.

An Alpine rescue team was the first to arrive on cross-country skis after a seven-kilometer, two-hour journey, finding Giampaolo Parete, a guest who escaped the avalanche when he went to his car to get something, and Fabio Salzetta, a hotel maintenance worker, in a car in the resort’s parking lot.

There were no other signs of life.

“Unfortunately we haven’t had any positive signs since the morning,” firefighter spokesman Luca Cari told state-run RAI television.

Parete, whose wife and two children remain among the missing, was taken to a hospital while Salzetta stayed behind with rescuers to help identify where guests might be buried and how crews could enter the buildings, rescuers said.

The mountainous region of central Italy has been struck by a series of quakes since August that destroyed homes and historic centers in dozens of towns and hamlets. A deadly quake in August killed nearly 300. No one died in strong aftershocks in October, largely because population centers had already been evacuated.

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Barry reported from Milan and Winfield reported from Rome.

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