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Rescuers dig for survivors after avalanche buries hotel where at least 30 are missing in central Italy

Rescuers dug with spades, picks and their bare hands Thursday in a desperate search for survivors as at least 30 people were feared dead at a hotel in snowbound central Italy after earthquakes triggered a massive avalanche that smashed into the building. 

As darkness fell Thursday, officials said two bodies had been pulled from wreckage of the four-star Hotel Rigopiano, close to the town of Farindola in the mountainous region of Abruzzo. 

Fears were growing for other guests, including two children, and the staff, who were in the hotel when a 6-foot-high, 300-yard-wide avalanche of snow, boulders and ripped-up tree trunks crushed the building Wednesday.

“We will work into the night, even though there is a concrete risk of other avalanches,” said mountain rescue spokesman Walter Milan as 70 rescuers continued to dig.

“There could be air pockets under the snow and rubble, and in the past, we have found people alive after three days,” he said.

“The hotel was torn apart by tons of snow and rock, and we even found mattresses spread over hundreds of” yards, said Luca Cari, a spokesman for firefighters working at the scene.

The building was reportedly shunted 30 feet by the avalanche.

As three rescue dogs sniffed around the wreckage for the scent of survivors, rescuers inserted 7-foot-long carbon probes into the snow. The devices are used to check for the presence of bodies.

Two men who were outside the hotel building when the avalanche struck spent Wednesday night huddling in a car while trying to contact emergency services.

One of them, Giampiero Parete, a chef staying at the hotel with his wife and two children, ages 6 and 8, had left the building to get some headache medicine for his wife from their car.

“As I returned to the hotel, I heard noises and creaking and saw the mountain collapse on top of the hotel. It partly knocked me down too,” he said. “I tried to get back in, but I risked being trapped, so I grabbed onto a branch and managed to get back to the car.”

Parete told his employer on the phone, “I have lost everyone. Under there are my wife and my two children.”

During the wait for rescuers, Parete said he had heard no voices from inside the hotel. He later was taken with the other survivor, a hotel maintenance worker, to a hospital to be treated for hypothermia.

Officials said there were probably 22 guests, eight staff members and four visitors at the hotel.

The avalanche, which raced down nearly 3,000 feet of mountainside before crushing the hotel, probably was triggered by four major earthquakes, each measuring  more than magnitude 5. The quakes shook Abruzzo on Wednesday and were felt as far as Rome, where schools and underground transportation lines were evacuated.

The temblors struck the same part of mountainous central Italy where a major jolt flattened the town of Amatrice in August, killing nearly 300 people.

“It’s likely that the latest quakes, followed by many aftershocks, caused a large amount of snow to detach from the mountain, just above the hotel,” said Cari, the firefighters’ spokesman.

Before the avalanche, guests had gathered on the hotel’s ground floor to evacuate after the earthquake and were waiting for a snowplow to clear the road, Parete said.

Rescuers alerted to the avalanche struggled through 6 feet of snow Wednesday night to reach the hotel, more than 20 miles from the coastal city of Pescara.

As their vehicles got stuck on the mountain road, blocked by fallen trees, stones and snow from smaller avalanches, rescuers were forced to don skis to reach the building, eventually arriving at 4 a.m.

As dawn broke, rescuers used tracked vehicles to get within three miles of the hotel, slicing through tree trunks with chainsaws, before making the remainder of the journey on foot.

“As the day went on, we finally opened up the road, and we have been bringing in small bulldozers, but it’s better not to use them when there could be people alive underneath,” said Milan, the rescue spokesman.

Picks, shovels and bare hands were the best way to dig, Cari said, as rescuers kept a wary eye out for new avalanches.

“I have worked on avalanches before, but this one was tricky because of the rubble mixed in with snow,” Milan said. “The dogs are confused because of the number of air pockets, but we have to push on in the hope we will find someone.”

Video taken in parts of the hotel that were still standing showed piles of snow massed inside corridors.

Aerial video shot from a helicopter showed rescue workers digging holes into the roof of the collapsed building.

The earthquakes hit as Abruzzo has been struggling under heavy snowfall, which has cut off communities still struggling to rebuild after homes were damaged in last year’s quakes.

Farmers who preferred to stay with their livestock through the bitter winter have moved into caravans, some of which had been buried by snowdrifts this week. 

In the town of Penne, near the avalanche, where the Red Cross set up a command center Thursday, residents gathered in snow-clogged streets to hear the latest on rescue efforts.

“I was having a coffee yesterday at the cafe when the quakes hit, and all the bottles behind the bar were rattling,” said Dino Gelsomini, 48, a local builder who said he knew some of the staffers at the Hotel Rigopiano who are missing.

“We have never had an avalanche here in my lifetime,” he said. “The quake was definitely behind this.”

Kington is a special correspondent.

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UPDATES:

1:30 p.m.: This article has been updated with an adjusted number of bodies pulled from the wreckage per officials.

11 a.m.: This article was updated with Times reporting from Penne, Italy.

5:06 a.m.: This article was updated with the latest on the rescue efforts and witness accounts. 

1:15 a.m.: This article was updated with 30 missing.

This article was originally published at 12:20 a.m.

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