Italy earthquakes: Many feared dead in hotel buried by avalanche

'Help, we're dying of cold,' one couple trapped inside wrote to rescuers

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The Independent Online

Thirty people are missing and feared dead after an avalanche buried a small hotel in the mountains of central Italy, following a series of earthquakes.

The avalanche covered the four-storey hotel in Abruzzo, an earthquake-hit zone of central Italy that had suffered days of heavy snow, smashing through windows and sending mattresses hundreds of yards down the mountain.

The Italian civil protection agency said it was working to get emergency vehicles to the Hotel Rigopiano, in the town of Farindola, through roads covered in snow, joining initial rescue efforts overnight by alpine rescue squads.

Earlier this morning, Italian news agency Ansa quoted the head of a mountain rescue squad saying "there are many dead".

The first rescuers reached the hotel on skis at around 4am local time (3am GMT) on Thursday morning, despite the fact that one of only two survivors found so far appears to have raised the alarm on Wednesday afternoon. Video posted online showed rescue workers met with an eerie silence as they searched the four-star spa hotel. 

Two men who were outside the building at the time of the disaster raised the alarm.

"I am alive because I went to get something from my car," one of the two, Giampiero Parete, told medical staff, according to the La Repubblica newspaper.

He told doctors his wife and two children were buried in the avalanche.

"Help, we're dying of cold," one couple trapped inside wrote to rescuers, according to Ansa.

Another man, identified by news reports as Fabio Salzetta, sent a text message saying he had escaped with a maintenance worker, but others were trapped inside. 

Corriere della Sera quoted the text message as saying: "Some walls were knocked down." And: "I'm outside with a maintenance worker but you can't see anything of the hotel, there's only a wall of snow in front of me." 

Video footage showed rescuers arriving at the hotel, which had been buried under the avalanche.

Later footage showed piles of snow and rubble cascading down the stairway into the foyer of the hotel.

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Video shows show piles of snow and rubble cascading down the stairway into the foyer of the hotel (AP)

"Around 30 people are unaccounted for, between guests and workers at the Hotel Rigopiano in Farindola," said Fabrizio Curcio, head of Italy's civil protection department.

"We're dropping our rescue units down by helicopter and they are starting to dig," said Luca Cari, a spokesman for the national fire brigades.

Rescue efforts were hampered by the snow, making it difficult to clear roads for heavy vehicles and ambulances to get through. Rescue vehicles had still not reached the hotel by nightfall on Thursday. 

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Video shows show piles of snow and rubble inside the hotel (AP)

Criticism over the response time of emergency services began with restaurant owner Quintino Marcella, who said he received a phone call at 5.30pm on Wednesday from one of his chefs, believed to be Mr Parete.

"He calls me and says 'Help me, an avalanche has hit and the hotel isn't there anymore. It's disappeared. It's buried. Two of us are here but call rescue crews'."

Mr Marcella said he immediately called police and a local emergency coordination centre, but was assured the hotel had phoned two or three hours earlier reporting everything was OK.

He said he frantically tried to call other emergency numbers but no one took him seriously.

However, the head of the Italy's civil protection authority has defended the response to a new series of earthquakes coupled with unusual snowfall.

Fabrizio Curcio said authorities are confronting "two exceptional events that already alone would have created great difficulty in the response." 

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Four magnitude 5.4 and stronger earthquakes hit Central Italy on Wednesday, 18 January (USGS)

While it is still not clear whether the start of the avalanche can be attributed to the earthquakes, it followed a spate of strong tremors which hit central Italy on Wednesday.

Four magnitude 5.2-and-higher quakes struck near the hill town of Amatrice, around 100 km (60 miles) northeast of Rome, in the space of four hours. Much of the area had already been abandoned after last year's earthquakes.

A deadly 6.2 magnitude earthquake killed nearly 300 people in the country's central regions in August.

That was followed by at least two more deadly earthquakes in Umbria and Marche in October, both measuring over six on the Richter scale.

Italy's Apennine mountains lie along an active fault line between the Adriatic and Eurasian plates, causing frequent seismic activity.

Seismologists say previous quakes have stressed the Laga Fault, which is rupturing.

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