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Rescuers in Italy continue search for avalanche survivors, fear more slides

Because of the avalanche risk, escape routes were planned for rescue crews and each participant was equipped with a tracking device in case they were buried under the snow


Rescuers work in the area of the avalanche-hit Rigopiano hotel, central Italy, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017. (Corpo Nazionale Soccorso Alpino e Speleologico/The National Alpine Cliff and Cave Rescue Corps


By Colleen Barry and Paolo Santalucia
Associated Press

FARINDOLA, Italy — Using saws, shovels and their gloved hands, rescue workers advanced slowly Saturday through the wreckage of an avalanche-destroyed hotel in central Italy, listening hard for any signs of more survivors among the 23 missing guests and hotel workers.

Falling snow reduced visibility and raised new fears that a fresh wall of snow could suddenly barrel down upon the emergency workers at the site in Italy’s Apennines mountains. Rescuers were working around the clock and said the risk of a new avalanche was very high.

By Saturday, nine survivors and five bodies had been pulled out of what was the Hotel Rigopiano, now a ruin under the weight of tons of snow that cascaded down the mountain late Wednesday afternoon. One survivor underwent surgery for a crushed arm, while the others were reported in good condition. The rescued included all four children inside the hotel when the avalanche hit.

Firefighter spokesman Alberto Maiolo said noises were heard Saturday, but it was not immediately clear if they were caused by survivors.

“The noises could be the drip of snow melt, material shifting” or from survivors, he told Sky TG24 TV.

He said 23 people were missing from the avalanche near the famed Gran Sasso massif, but stressed that number was “provisional.”

That voices haven’t been heard lately doesn’t mean no one is still alive, said Walter Milan, a spokesman for alpine rescuers. “We know that thick walls and snow isolates” possible voices, Milan told Sky.

Because of the avalanche risk, escape routes were planned for rescue crews and each participant was equipped with a tracking device in case they were buried under the snow.

Snowfall higher than 3 meters (10 feet) thwarted the arrival of heavy equipment like cranes, said rescue spokesman Marco Bini, leaving the searchers to often rely on their hands or simple snow shovels to make progress.

The search included sending sound-sensitive instruments down into snow-crusted debris. Rescuers passed crates full of chunks of hardened snow and ice to colleagues as they tried to penetrate deeper into the wreckage, creating the rough equivalent of elevator shafts to allow searchers to descend into the smashed hotel.

Searchers also used devices that could pick up any electronic waves emitted by cell phones of the missing, Milan said.

At the hospital in the nearby city of Pescara where survivors were taken, anger and frustrations exploded as family members tried desperately to find out if their loved ones were among the dead or missing.

One father who had been waiting since Wednesday evening for word of his son’s fate erupted in front of television cameras, pointing angrily at the cars of local officials.

“What are they doing? They aren’t doing anything. Why didn’t they go get the kids out the night before the disaster?,” yelled Alessio Feniello, referring to his son, Stefano Feniello, and his son’s fiancee Francesca Bronzi, who was among those hospitalized.

Distraught, he said he had been told that his son had survived, but officials had supplied no clear information on that by midday Saturday.

The avalanche dumped 16½ feet (5 meters) of snow on top of the resort, 180 kilometers (115 miles) northeast of Rome. The region, which has been blanketed by heavy snowfall, was also rocked by four strong earthquakes on Wednesday, though it wasn’t clear if they set off the avalanches.

In one family, elation that 9-year-old Edoardo Di Carlo had survived in good condition was tempered by news that his mother, Nadia Aconcciamessa, a nurse in the nearby town of Penne, was among the dead.

Another victim was a hotel waiter, Gabriele D’Angelo.

Edoardo told rescuers he had gone into the billiards room to play when he was trapped by the avalanche. Three of the children had been together in the disaster.

When the rescuers, eager for details that might aid further rescues, gently asked him if there were other people near him, including grown-ups, the boy replied: “Only the mamma of another child.” He sounded weary.

The Italian news agency ANSA quoted one of the rescued adults, Giampaolo Matrone, as telling his rescuers that he had held onto the hand of his wife, Valentina Cicioni until he was rescued.

“I kept speaking to her, to keep her awake, because I wanted her to stay alert,” the rescuers quoted Matrone as saying. “I was calling her, but at a certain point I didn’t hear her any more, and I understood that she was letting go of me.”

Hours later Saturday, the wife’s fate was still unknown.

Matrone reportedly also told rescuers there was another woman, who appeared lifeless, near him while he awaited rescue.

Meanwhile, details began emerging on how some survived.

“Some of the people had enough space to move and big oxygen bubbles,” Milan told The Associated Press in Penne. “As time passed, hour by hour, they were forced to organize. They tried to light up a small fire.”

Several survivors were found near the hotel kitchen, where they were able to find food, he said.

Dr. Rossano di Luzio, a physician at Pescara hospital, spoke of the psychological trauma of survivors, especially the children.

“Their state of mind is that of someone who has suffered a drama and who was in a truly precarious position for many hours,” he said.

Giampiero Parete, who was vacationing with his family but was outside the hotel when the avalanche hit, had sounded the alarm about the disaster by phoning his boss. On Saturday, he was reunited with his wife, son and daughter after they were among the first to be extracted from the debris.

“Thank you everyone from my heart,” Parete wrote on Facebook. “Big hugs.”

Prosecutors are investigating if the hotel should have been evacuated when roads were still open, given the heavy snowfall in the region.

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