Rigopiano Hotel avalanche: Puppies raise rescuers’ hopes in Italy

Three puppies have been rescued alive from the ruins of a mountain hotel in Abruzzo, central Italy, which was engulfed by an avalanche five days ago.

The number of confirmed deaths has risen to seven, with 22 people still missing, but there are hopes people may have survived in air pockets.

Nine people were brought out alive while two were found outside the hotel.

Rescuers using shovels and saws are considering whether to start using heavy equipment on the buried ruins.

Details have emerged of the situation at the hotel just before the avalanche. The manager, Bruno Di Tommaso, told officials in an email shortly before the disaster on Wednesday that his guests were terrified by multiple earthquakes that day, and were prevented from leaving by snowdrifts.

However, there was no mention of a potential avalanche. Italian officials have since confirmed that the area was not considered to be at risk of such an event.

The local authorities say a snowplough was due to begin work on the road to the hotel on Wednesday evening but the avalanche struck in the late afternoon.

Seventh death

The body of a woman was recovered on Monday afternoon. Five bodies were brought out earlier while a sixth which was found cannot yet be removed.

The recovery of three shaggy white Abruzzo sheepdog pups meant there were still air pockets in the ruins, firefighters told reporters.

“We knew these dogs were there but we did not know where exactly,” one rescuer said.

“When we understood where they were, we warned the firemen, who were allowed to enter the structure. We located them in the boiler room. Now the priority is to get them seen by a veterinarian, even if at first glance it seems that they are in very good health.”

Luca Cari, a spokesman for the firefighters, said it was a “fight against time” to rescue the missing people.

A firefighter in an opening at the Rigopiano hotel, Italy, 22 JanuaryImage copyrightEPA
Image captionRescuers are entering the ruins through tiny shafts
Rescuers digging at snow-covered hotel, 23 Jan 17 (CNSAS photo)Image copyrightAFP
Image captionRescuers are digging with shovels as the avalanche risk remains high

Shafts have been dug into the snow and concrete to allow rescuers access, while electronic probes are being used to search inside for the slightest noise that might be a sign of life.

Rescue crews from the fire brigade and other services have taken precautions to secure themselves in case of a new avalanche, with escape routes planned out and tracking devices issued to each member, the Associated Press reports.

Radar has been set up to give early warning of any new slide, AFP news agency reports.

The avalanche – weighing some 120,000 tonnes – hit the luxury hotel with a speed of about 100km/h (60mph).

Some of the firefighters are taking inspiration from last week’s rescues.

One, Marco Filabozzi, said: “We did three earthquakes: Amatrice [24 August 2016], Camerino [26 October] and Norcia [31 October]. We only found dead people.

“When we broke that wooden panel and saw those three children huddled against each other, we looked at each other and we suddenly understood: those angels erased all the dead for us.”

Alessio Feniello, whose son Stefano, 28, is among the missing, accused the authorities of misleading him into thinking his son had been rescued along with his girlfriend.

“If there was a thread of hope of rescuing [my son], there isn’t any hope anymore,” he was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.

Alessio Feniello (C), the father of Stefano, one of the 23 missing persons, talks to journalists outside the Pescara hospital, central Italy, 23 January 2017Image copyrightEPA
Image captionMr Feniello (centre) spoke to reporters outside a hospital in Pescara

‘We never stopped’

In his email, Mr Di Tommaso, the hotel manager, warned the authorities in Pescara province, the local police chief and the mayor of a nearby village, Farindola, that the situation was “worrying”.

He asked them to prepare to intervene, saying stranded guests terrified by the earthquakes were preparing to spend the night in their cars.

Map of region

Italian media say the Pescara authorities already knew at 07:00 (06:00 GMT) on Wednesday that a special, high-powered snowplough would be needed to unblock the road to the hotel. The avalanche, triggered by the earthquakes, struck at about 17:00 later that day.

The daily Il Messaggero says Pescara President Antonio Di Marco saw the email at 14:00.

“Nobody underestimated the email,” he said, explaining that he had assured the hotel owner’s sister that a special snowplough – a “turbina” – would be on its way to unblock the road by that evening.

“For me it is an irrelevant email – we never stopped,” he said.

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INTERACTIVESee extent of avalanche destruction

After avalanche

After avalanche

Hotel in summer

Hotel in summer

BBC map