21 Jan 2017

Italy avalanche: first 10 survivors found

11:13 am on 21 January 2017

Rescuers have pulled five people to safety and found at least five others alive two days after an avalanche flattened a mountain hotel in central Italy.

More than 30 people were in the Hotel Rigopiano, in the central Abruzzo region, when avalanche slammed into it on Wednesday afternoon, after a series of earthquakes, spreading debris hundreds of metres across the valley floor.

At least four people were confirmed dead.

National fire brigade official Luca Cari said the first victims to be found alive, a group of six people, were found on Friday morning with fire teams swiftly managing to pull two of them - a mother and her young son - to safety from a tangled mass of smashed concrete.

Rescuers clapped and shouted "bravo" as the pair were brought to the surface, led to nearby stretchers and carried by helicopter to hospital for a health check.

A handout aerial picture made available on 19 January 2017 by Vigili del Fuoco shows Hotel Rigopiano, buried in an avalanche, in the region of Abruzzo near Farindola, Italy.

The Hotel Rigopiano buried in an avalanche. Photo: AFP / DPA

Officials said the pair were the son and wife of Giampiero Parete, who had left the hotel to get medicine from his car seconds before the avalanche hit and had subsequently raised the alarm.

His six-year-old daughter was rescued as night fell on Friday along with the only other two missing children.

"They are all alive and well," Mr Cari told Reuters. "The rescue operation is very long and difficult ... We are dealing with reinforced concrete that has collapsed."

The survivors reportedly took refuge beneath a collapsed portion of ceiling, where they were able to light a fire to keep warm.

"They survived thanks to this bubble of air that formed inside the hotel," said Marco Bini, a rescue worker from Italy's finance police.

Rescuers said they would work through the night to free the five other people who remained trapped under tonnes of snow and debris while the search continued for other possible survivors. About 20 people were still missing.

A relative told the BBC that her young cousins were found alive by rescuers.

Her uncle - who was already being treated at the local hospital - had been taken to see them, she said.

"My aunt is from Romania, she is 43 years old - her daughter just turned six years old, and the boy is eight," the woman, who asked not to be identified, said.

"They were on holiday and just getting ready to leave when the avalanche came."

She said they had still not had news about her aunt. "We are very worried," she added.

The disaster struck during a driving snowstorm on Wednesday, hours after four earthquakes above magnitude 5 rattled the region.

As much as 5m of snow covered much of what was left of the Rigopiano hotel, said Walter Milan, a member of the Alpine Rescue service at the scene. Only sections of the spa and swimming area were intact, he said.

Two men outside the hotel managed to escape the avalanche and raise the alarm, but the first rescuers only managed to reach the scene by ski some 11 hours later, with the access roads blocked by snow and fallen trees.

A list of 23 names given by La Stampa newspaper suggested most of the victims were Italians, but also included a Swiss national and a Romanian.

Two bodies have already been removed from the site, officials confirmed.

Elsewhere in central Italy, the army was helping to dig out communities left stunned by the double blow of snow and earthquakes. The bodies of three missing people were discovered in the region during the day, possibly victims of the cold.

Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said Italy had set aside €4 billion in its 2017 budget for earthquake reconstruction, but said it was "clear we will need billions more for this emergency and reconstruction".

His cabinet agreed on Friday to release €30 million immediately to deal with the latest crisis.

"It is difficult to imagine more exceptional circumstances than these," he told state television. "The civil protection agency is managing an unprecedented emergency."

- Reuters / BBC

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs