'Miracle' rescue of ski tutor

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Rescuers in Australia are hoping for a second miracle today after pulling a 27-year-old ski instructor from under the rubble of a landslide, where he had survived for almost three days in darkness and freezing temperatures.

"A miracle has occurred," police chief superintendent Charlie Sanderson said after Stuart Diver's muffled voice was heard under the tonnes of rubble just before dawn broke on Saturday.

Cheers and claps broke out among 400 emergency workers at Thredbo, a ski resort in southern New South Wales, when Mr Diver was finally lifted from under three layers of concrete.

The landslide hit just before midnight on Wednesday. Tonnes of soil, rock and trees buried 19 people inside two ski lodges and swept away a woman who was walking home with her husband. Six bodies have since been recovered, and hopes of finding the rest trapped under the debris had virtually disappeared.

Then at 5.37 yesterday morning, rescuers stopped work when they heard a muffled sound from under the wreckage of what used to be Bimbadeen, the lodge where Mr Diver and other staff at the resort lived.

Steve Hirst, a fireman, lay on his stomach and called: "Rescue team working overhead. Can you hear me?" Mr Diver called back: "I can hear you."

"He said he was in fine spirits and doing quite well and uninjured, just extremely cold," said Mr Hirst.

Mr Diver was found sandwiched between concrete slabs, which had saved him from being crushed and created an air pocket, insulating him from the freezing overnight temperatures of minus 12 degrees Celsius.

Nine agonising hours were to pass before a rescuer stretched his arm through a small cavity and grabbed Mr Diver's hand, some 32ft under the rubble. Mr Diver was trapped in a "mini-tomb" created by the concrete slabs, lying on his back, with only 12in to move his head.

They brought him out suffering from hypothermia and cuts, but he was conscious and in good spirits.

"Come on Stewie. Good on ya Stewie." cried fellow ski instructors, as rescuers patted each other on the back.

For the victims' family and friends, however, the nightmare continues. Among the 13 bodies which were still missing yesterday was Mr Diver's wife, Sally. Rescue co-ordinators said they were intensifying the round- the-clock search for other survivors today.

Warren Nicholas, a friend of Mr Diver, said: "He's extremely fit and courageous. If anyone could have survived this, he could. Stuart and Sally lived in the bottom flat at Bimbadeen which was embedded in the ground. When the landslide hit, the debris went over the top and this might have saved him."

Because of the steep angle of the hill, and dangers of further landslips, the rescue work has been painstakingly slow. Rescue chiefs have brought in experts involved in rescue operations after the Oklahoma bombing and earth collapses in Hong Kong and Western Australia.

Geophysicists now believe that a build-up of sub-surface water between the closely settled lodges probably caused the disaster.

Last night, Mr Diver was flown to intensive care in Canberra, 130km to the north. Borne on a stretcher and wearing a heavy neck-brace, he won more cheers on arrival in Canberra where a crowd of about 60 people shouted their best wishes and tooted car horns.

"It's been a very long day and a very emotional day," said the helicopter co-pilot Paul Newland.