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Joy erupts as Italian rescuers pull out survivors

Paola Santalucia and Gregorio Borgia
Associated Press

Farindola, Italy — With cheers of joy, rescue crews pulled survivors from the debris of an avalanche-crushed hotel in central Italy on Friday, boosting spirits two days after the massive snow slide buried some 30 people at the resort. At least two children were among the 10 people found alive.

The news sent relatives of the missing rushing from the rescue operations center in the mountains to the hospital on the coast in hopes that their loved ones were among the lucky few to be found.

And it buoyed rescue workers who had already located four bodies from the avalanche that slammed Wednesday into the luxury Hotel Rigopiano, 112 miles northeast of Rome, and dumped up to 16½ feet of snow on top of the resort.

“Today is a day of hope. There’s a miracle under way,” said Ilario Lacchetta, mayor of the tiny town of Farindola, where the hotel is located.

First word of the discovery came at around 11 a.m. Video released by rescuers showed a boy wearing blue snow pants and a matching ski shirt emerging through a snow hole. Emergency crews mussed his hair in celebration.

“Bravo! Bravo!” they cheered.

Next came a woman with a long ponytail wearing red snow pants, appearing fully alert. Both were helped to a stretcher for the helicopter ride out.

“This first news has obviously repaid all the rescuers’ efforts,” said Italy’s deputy interior minister, Filippo Bubbico.

About 30 people were trapped inside the hotel in the Gran Sasso mountain range when the avalanche struck after days of winter storms that dumped nearly 10 feet of snow in some places. The region was also rocked by four earthquakes on Wednesday, though it was not clear if any of those set off the avalanche.

Two people initially survived the devastation and called for help. One of them, Giampiero Parete, had called his boss and begged him to mobilize rescue crews because his wife and two children were trapped inside.

Parete’s Romanian-born wife, Adriana Vranceanu, 43, and 8-year-old son Gianfilippo, were reunited later Friday with their father at the hospital in the nearby city of Pescara, ANSA news agency and state-run RAI radio said.

Rescue workers were still searching for their daughter, 6-year-old Ludovica, after her mother indicated she was alive under the debris. The Romanian foreign ministry confirmed an adult and child had been rescued and taken to the hospital in Pescara.

Outside the hospital, other relatives gathered anxiously as ambulances arrived.

“I just hope that my niece and her boyfriend will make it out of there,” said Melissa Riccardo. “We just came here to see if she was here.”

The number of survivors found and extracted evolved over the course of the day.

“We found five people alive. We’re pulling them out. Send us a helicopter!” a rescuer was heard saying over a firefighters’ radio as Associated Press reporters made their way on foot to the site of the disaster.

Late Friday, firefighter spokesman Luca Cari said a total of 10 survivors, including two children, had been located but only a few had been extracted.

Rescue crews said one group of survivors had been found in the hotel’s kitchen area, and had survived thanks to an air pocket that formed when reinforced cement walls partially resisted the avalanche’s violent power.

“It’s probable that they realized the risk and took protective measures,” Romano said.

Those being rescued were in remarkably good condition, rescue workers said.

Titi Postiglione, operations chief of the civil protection agency, said survivors would help rescuers try to locate others trapped in the hotel.

“They can give us a series of indications to help with our intervention plan, information to understand what happened and help direct the search,” she said.

Prosecutors opened a manslaughter investigation into the tragedy and were looking into whether the avalanche threat was taken seriously enough, and whether the hotel should have been evacuated earlier given the heavy snowfall and forecasts, Italian media said.

“That hotel, in that historic moment, should it have been open?” prosecutor Christina Tedeschini was quoted by ANSA as saying. “If the people wanted to leave, what prevented them from doing so?”

Parete, the survivor who sounded the alarm, said the guests had all checked out and were waiting for the road to be cleared so they could evacuate. But the snowplow never arrived and the avalanche hit around 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.

In addition, pleas for a rescue team initially went unheeded by Italian authorities. Parete’s boss, restaurant owner Quintino Marcella, said his call to the Pescara prefect’s office was rebuffed because the hotel had informed it a few hours earlier that all was OK there.

He persisted with other emergency responders and eventually someone took his information seriously and mobilized the rescue, some two hours later.

Tedeschini said the delay was “a relevant theme that we will look into.”

The operation has also been hampered by fears of triggering new avalanches and building collapses onto possible survivors trapped in the hotel rubble.

Workers have been clearing a 5.5-mile road to bring in heavier equipment, but the mountain road can handle only one-way traffic and is covered with snow and fallen trees and rocks.

Days of heavy snowfall had knocked out electricity and phone lines in many central Italian towns and hamlets, and the hotel phones went down early Wednesday, just as the first of the four powerful earthquakes struck.

The force of the massive snow slide collapsed one wing of the hotel and rotated another off its foundation, pushing it downhill.

Lacchetta, the Farindola mayor, said the hotel had 24 guests, four of them children, and 12 employees onsite at the time of the avalanche.

An Alpine rescue team was the first to arrive at the hotel on cross-country skis after a seven-kilometer (more than four-mile) journey that took two hours. They found Parete and Fabio Salzetta, a hotel maintenance worker, in a car in the resort’s parking lot.

Parete was taken to a hospital while Salzetta stayed behind to help rescuers identify where guests might be buried and how crews could enter the buildings.

The mountainous region of central Italy has been struck by a series of quakes since August that destroyed homes and historic centers in dozens of towns and hamlets. A deadly quake in August killed nearly 300 people. No one died in strong aftershocks in the region in October, largely because towns had already been evacuated.