Italian rescuers pulled four survivors from an avalanche-hit hotel Saturday and said they still hoped to find more people alive in ruins where up to 20 may still be trapped.
Morale among the teams of mountain police and firefighters remains high after Friday’s dramatic rescue of all four children who were inside the Hotel Rigopiano, in central Italy, along with the mother of two of them.
But the rescue operation, which was entering a third day, was increasingly resembling a race against the clock amid fears that anyone still alive could succumb to the cold before they can be reached.
Two men and two women were rescued alive in the the early hours of Saturday.
There were no reports of any other signs of life having been identified but officials emphasised that was no reason to give up hope.
Enrica Centi, a spokeswoman for the mountain rescuers involved in the operation, said: “There is still hope because although no more voices have been heard there may be people trapped behind or under a cement wall which would make it impossible to hear them.”
She said scores of rescuers were working 14-hour shifts to try and find any survivors.
The rescuers are having to comb a large area of snow-covered debris as a result of the devastating force of the avalanche, which dragged the base of the three-storey hotel some 10 metres (30 feet) off its foundations.
And Friday’s experience demonstrated that even once someone is located and contacted it can take many more hours to complete their extraction amid an ever-present risk of further masonry collapses.
– Kids in games room –
The latest operations bring to 11 the total number of survivors of the disaster, including two hotel guests who were outside the building when the avalanche struck just before nightfall on Wednesday.
Five bodies have been recovered so far, leaving at least 11 people and possibly up to 20 unaccounted for.
There is uncertainty about how many people were staying at the hotel at the time of the avalanche and whether any other casual visitors were in its bar or restaurant.
Scores of mountain police, firefighters and other emergency personnel have worked painstakingly since the first rescuers battled through a snowstorm to reach the hotel in the early hours of Thursday.
Progress has been agonisingly slow, with rescuers wary of triggering further movements in the snow piled up on top of the masonry.
Italian newspapers on Saturday saluted the heroism of the country’s first responders, many of whom have repeatedly put their lives on the line to turn a story about “a coffin hotel” into one about the “Miracle of Rigopiano.”
All the rescuers are wearing avalanche location devices because of the risk a fresh snowslide could occur at any time.
It emerged Saturday that the children likely survived because they were in or around a games room which was not crushed by the avalanche.
“There were three of us kids playing pool. One of the mums was there but all the other adults were in another room,” one of them, nine-year-old Edoardo Di Carlo, was quoted by local media as saying after his rescue.
– ‘Biscuits please’ –
Edoardo’s parents were among the hotel guests still missing on Saturday.
“It is a miracle that my nephew was found,” his aunt, Simona Di Carlo told reporters. “I was crying for two days but I never lost hope. If he has survived maybe it was because his parents protected him.”
Two of the children rescued were from the same family of four, all of whom emerged unscathed from the tragedy thanks to an extraordinary sequence of events.
Father Giampiero Parete, a 38-year-old chef, escaped the avalanche impact by centimetres (inches) on Wednesday because he had gone out to the family car to get his wife some headache pills.
He was inconsolable for some 36 hours before he learned that the rescuers had located his wife Adriana and two young children, Gianfilippo and Ludovica.
Adriana and Gianfilippo were extracted unscathed at midday on Friday and the family then had to endure another agonising wait before six-year-old Ludovica was brought to safety at dusk.
Friends described the Parete children as being exhausted but otherwise physically unaffected by their ordeal. Ludovica’s first request after being saved was for some Ringos, Italy’s equivalent of Oreo biscuits.
Wednesday’s avalanche followed four earthquakes of more than five magnitude in the space of four hours earlier in the day. The death toll from the quake, not including the victims at the hotel, rose to five Saturday.
SOURCE: AFP, Ella Ide with Angus MacKinnon