Rescue workers found one body last night, and will resume this morning their perilous task of picking through the wreckage of two ski lodges piece by piece, perched on the side of a hill below a road that collapsed just before midnight on Wednesday, sending the buildings crashing into each other as their occupants slept.
The slide hit so suddenly that it swept away a woman who was taking a late-night stroll with her husband. Walking a few paces ahead of her, he survived.
Miraculously, only one person was staying in the uppermost lodge, Carrinya, owned by a ski club in Canberra. At weekends the lodge would be packed with families.
In Bimbadeen, the lodge downhill from Carrinya, about 19 workers employed by the company that runs the Thredbo resort had retired when the disaster struck. They are believed to be Australians and Americans.
Holidaymakers and skiers in surrounding lodges that somehow stayed standing dashed from their beds when they heard a roar that some likened to a tornado. Ron Stiebel, an Australian tourist, said: "It just looked like a vacuum cleaner had emptied a giant load of debris on to the side of the hill."
Glenn Milne, a political journalist with Australia's Channel Seven television network, was on holiday with his family in a lodge next door. He told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio: "It was like an enormous gust of wind. It shook our lodge to its foundations. Then we heard a car alarm going off. My wife, Karen, jumped out of bed and walked out to the veranda, part of the railing of which had been taken away by the rubble.
"She said, `My God, there are cars everywhere'. As well as buildings coming down, all the terrace car parks had come down too. So cars were smashed on top of the lodges. I bundled my two little daughters up and ran them to the bottom of the hill because the whole thing was unstable.
"When I got back up, we could hear voices in the rubble, at least three. One was definitely a male. Someone I was with said there was possibly a female as well. We tried to get to them, we were trying to claw the rubble away to get to the voices. But, as we were doing so, the cars above us that had pancaked on to the concrete were teetering on the edge. We were still trying to get to them when the emergency services arrived. They took one look at the situation, identified the places where we heard the voices and ordered us out. They said it was far too dangerous.
"The worst thing about it was you just had to walk away."
Another survivor, John Hutcheons from Adelaide, said he heard voices in two areas of the rubble minutes after the slide came to a halt. "I can't be very hopeful," he said. "It's exceedingly dangerous and exceedingly difficult for the emergency service men. They can pick bits off the top, but there's a chance it may all slip away again and take them with it."
It was this uncertainty about the rubble's stability that made police delay starting the rescue operation for 12 hours on the advice of geophysical experts who were flown in by helicopter from Sydney, about 250 miles to the north. As darkness fell yesterday evening, and temperatures dropped below freezing, a chain of about 200 rescuers prepared to work through the night under floodlights.
Their hopes dimmed after sound recorders and cameras lowered into the debris failed to detect any signs or sounds of life. They feared that any survivors who might be trapped in air pockets would succumb to hypothermia after a day and two nights in freezing temperatures.
Even as the rescue operation got under way, questions were being asked about the cause of the disaster. Conservationists argue that Thredbo has been over-developed with too many lodges on the fragile mountain slope, and that the landslide was a tragedy waiting to happen.Reuse content