Italy rescuers say ice thwarts manual search of buried hotel


FARINDOLA, Italy (AP) — Rescuers digging through an Italian hotel buried by an avalanche reported hearing no signs of life Sunday from the 24 people still missing inside and appealed for equipment to help them penetrate the ruins where they say air pockets might be sustaining more survivors.

Rescue crews last reported hearing voices from the snow-entombed Hotel Rigopiano on Friday, when four children and five adults were located alive in small spaces that contained enough air for them to breathe.

Among them were Vincenzo Forti and Giorgia Galassi, a couple who huddled with another woman in the gap where a girder split a sofa and ate dirty ice to stay hydrated, a friend of the couple told reporters at Pescara hospital Sunday.

Forti, who is in his 20s, "now he realizes he is a miraculous survivor. Also considering where he was -- a square meter -- (3 foot by 3 foot) (space) in the cold, without lights, with a broken sofa, a girder splitting it up," the friend, Luigi Valiante, said.

Five people have been confirmed dead in the avalanche that hit the resort on Wednesday evening while its guests were waiting for a snow plow to clear the road so they could evacuate.

The number of people thought to be still inside the hotel was increased from 23 to 24 Sunday, officials said. One of the rescued survivors told authorities about a young Senegalese worker at the resort who had not been included in previous counts.

Rescuers told reporters Sunday they have detected other air pockets in the hotel wreckage. But they haven't been able to reach all those areas yet.

Impassable mountain roads have left crews without equipment like cranes that could help them remove the piles of ice and snow more quickly.

About 60 people at a time have been relying on shovels and their hands to dig farther into the hotel.

"We hope we can get heavier equipment in, the snow is getting heavier," Alessandro Sciucchi, a member of an Alpine rescue team told Sky24 TV at the coordination center in the nearby town of Penne.

Asked about hearing signs of life, Sciucchi replied: "There aren't any signs, so hope is growing weaker." But he stressed that efforts to find survivors were going non-stop, with roughly 200 crew members working in shifts.

The fate of the woman who was trapped with Forti and Galassi, and of a man whom Forti described as being somewhat farther away, was not immediately clear.

Until their cellphone batteries ran out, the survivors had some light. Then it was just dark and cold, Valiante said.

"But ice was the only resource they had, to put something into their mouths," he said.

The massiveness of the avalanche became more apparent as experts studied the area.

Lt. Col. Vincenzo Romeo, of the Carabinieri paramilitary police's mountain weather unit, said the equivalent of the weight of "3,500 big-rigged trucks, fully loaded" had smashed into the hotel after days of heavy snowfall.

The avalanche weighed an estimated 40,000-60,000 tons when it first crushed the hotel, Romeo said. In the days since, the snow has become heavier as it has gotten icier, and now weighs an estimated 120,000 tons, he said.

The snow mass which broke off the mountainside barreled down a slope with a 35-degree angle and traveled some two kilometers (1 mile) on its route straight into the resort, Romeo said.

Several powerful earthquakes had rocked the central Apennines area only hours before the avalanche. But Romeo said experts say the snow slide was triggered "not so much by earthquake, but by the accumulation of snow combined with strong winds, which created drifts."


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