PENNE, Italy (AP) — Rescue workers on skis reached a four-star spa hotel buried by an avalanche in earthquake-stricken central Italy Thursday, reporting no sign of life in the building even though two survivors found outside said more than 30 people had been in it when the snow struck.
As heavy vehicles tried to reach the Hotel Rigopiano to help with the rescue, criticism mounted over the response to the four quakes, one a magnitude 5.7, and days of unusually heavy snowfall that have blanketed the region. Accounts emerged of hotel guests messaging rescuers and friends for help Wednesday, with at least one attempt at raising the alarm rebuffed for several hours.
“Help, we’re dying of cold,” one couple wrote rescuers from the hotel, according to the ANSA news agency.
Giampiero Parete, a chef vacationing at the hotel, called his boss when the avalanche struck, begging for him to mobilize rescue crews because his wife Adriana and two children, Ludovica and Gianfilippo, were trapped inside, employer Quintino Marcella told The Associated Press.
Parete had left briefly to get some medicine for his wife, and survived as a result.
“He said the hotel was submerged and to call rescue crews,” Marcella said. He said he phoned police and the Pescara prefect’s office, but that no one believed him. “The prefect’s office said it wasn’t true, because everything was OK at the hotel.”
Marcella said he insisted, and called other emergency numbers until someone finally took him seriously and mobilized a rescue, starting at 8 p.m., more than two hours later.
When rescuers on skis arrived in the early morning hours of Thursday, they found just two people alive: Parete and another guest, Fabio Salzetta. There were no other signs of life, according to a video of the interior shot by rescue crews.
Salzetta had also sent a message out: “Some walls were knocked down,” Corriere della Sera reported. 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.”
Civil protection authorities said that 30 people were missing. ANSA quoted a rescuer as saying that there were fatalities, but details weren’t immediately available. Just one body was reported removed from the hotel by late morning Thursday.
Premier Paolo Gentiloni, arriving at the civil protection headquarters in the area at midday Thursday, sought to deflect criticism of the rescue efforts and urged authorities to redouble efforts to reach people isolated by the quakes and snow, which in some places has dumped as much as two meters (six feet).
Residents have been complaining for days that they have been without electricity and phone service and have been house-bound because of what Gentiloni called a “record snowfall.”
“I ask everyone if possible to multiply their efforts,” Gentiloni said. “I ask politicians to show sobriety respecting the difficulty of the situation and the commitment of civil and military crews who are responding.”
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 midday Thursday.
The buried hotel was just one of several rescues underway: Video footage from Italian financial police force GDF showed a gray-haired man being led to safety by rescuers through a path dug out of deep snow elsewhere else in the region.
Snow continued to fall Thursday with reports of people being isolated in many places. A resident of a town in the province of Teramo, Daiana Nguyen, told SKY TG24 that 3 meters (about 10 feet) of snow had fallen and that people “were completely isolated.”
“They talk about sending in the army: Thirty to 40 men came with shovels. We need heavy machinery!” she said.
The timing of the avalanche Wednesday and the messages remained unclear, but the hotel posted a notice on its Facebook page that its phones were down around 9 a.m. following the first of Wednesday’s quakes. It wasn’t immediately clear if the temblors triggered the avalanche.
Marcella, a restaurant owner on the nearby coast, said he received the call from Parete, his chef, at around 5:30 p.m. He reported that all of the guests had checked out and were waiting for the roads to be cleared on Wednesday afternoon when the avalanche struck. Initially the road was to be cleared by 3 p.m., but that was delayed until 7 p.m.
Video shot by rescue teams showed huge piles of filthy snow and debris piled up inside the hotel corridors, stairwells and an indoor pool area, havng slammed through the outer walls of the building. The audio is silent. The largest wall of snow shown was in the pool area, where plastic lounge chairs were flipped on their sides and Christmas decorations still dangled from the ceiling.
The bar area appeared flooded, with nearby cracked skylights covered with snow outside.
Aerial video shot by helicopter crews showed rescue workers on top of the snow-covered hotel, digging holes down to try to get in.
The hotel is about 45 kilometers (30 miles) from the coastal city of Pescara, at an altitude of about 1,200 meters (3,940 feet).
An ambulance was blocked about nine kilometers (5½ miles) from the hotel, according to SKY, which also said that snowfall was so heavy that snow plows have had trouble clearing the road to the hotel.
The mountainous region of central Italy has been struck by a series of quakes since August that destroyed historic centers in dozens of towns and hamlets. A deadly quake in August killed nearly 300, while no one died in the strong aftershocks in October largely because population centers had already been evacuated. In the meantime, the entire region has been hit by freezing weather and buffeted by snowstorms, piling more suffering on to the hard-hit population.
On Tuesday, the hotel posted photos of the recent snowfall, calling it “a dream Tuesday. Snow is giving us spectacular scenes.” It advised guests that roads were still passable but snow tires were required with chains for cars. In the hours since the report of the avalanche, Facebook users have been posting messages on the hotel’s page seeking information about the hotel.