After two days huddled in freezing cold, tons of snow surrounding them in the wreckage of the avalanche-demolished hotel, survivors greeted their rescuers Friday as “angels.” Among the 10 people pulled out alive was a plucky 6-year-old who just wanted her favorite cookies.
But for the loved ones of at least 16 others still trapped in the doomed mountain resort in central Italy, the agonizing wait to learn their relatives’ fate dragged on.
“Whoever had good news is happy,” said Francesco Provolo, the prefect of the nearby town of Pescara, where the survivors were taken to a hospital.
“Who didn’t have good news…,” Provolo’s voice trailed off as he was joined by people at the hospital who looked upset.
Cheers of “Bravo! Bravo!” rang out early Friday as the first survivors were pulled from the debris, boosting spirits two days after the massive snow slide buried some 30 people. Four children were among those found alive, though the fate of the parents of one of them remained unknown as rescuers dug on.
“Today is a day of hope. There’s a miracle under way,” declared Ilario Lacchetta, mayor of the tiny town of Farindola, where the hotel is located.
Before the rescues, four bodies had been discovered earlier in the rubble of the luxury Hotel Rigopiano, in the Gran Sasso mountains 180 kilometers (115 miles) northeast of Rome, where the avalanche dumped 16½ feet (5 meters) of snow on top of the resort Wednesday.
Relatives of the missing rushed from the mountain rescue operations center to the seaside hospital where the survivors were taken for treatment in hopes that their loved ones were among the lucky few to be found.
First word of the survivors came around 11 a.m. when a boy wearing blue snow pants and a matching ski jacket emerged through a tunnel dug in the snow more than 42 hours after the avalanche struck.
It was Gianfilippo Parete, the 8-year-old son of Giampiero Parete, a chef vacationing at the resort who was outside the hotel when the deluge hit and first sounded the alarm by calling his boss.
Emergency crews mussed the boy’s hair in celebration. “Bravo! Bravo!” they cheered.
Next to emerge was the boy’s mother, Adriana Vranceanu, 43, wearing red snow pants and appearing alert as she pointed toward the wreckage where her 6-year-old daughter, Ludovica, was still trapped. Mother and son were taken by stretcher to a helicopter for the ride out.
They were then reunited with Parete at the hospital in Pescara, suffering from hypothermia and dehydration but otherwise in good health.
“They had heavy clothes,” said Dr. Tullio Spina, director of the hospital’s intensive care and anesthesia unit. “They had ski caps to cover themselves. They remained away from the snow and cold, they were always inside the structure. That’s why the hypothermia wasn’t severe.”
Ludovica, in a fuschia-colored top and dark snow pants, was rescued several hours later and asked for cookies: Ringos, an Italian version of Oreos, said Quintino Marcella, the restaurant owner who rallied the rescue after getting the phone call from her father.
He said the little girl, her brother and mother “are great. Of course, they are worn out after two nights and two days without anything, in the cold.”
Some 30 people were believed trapped inside the hotel when the avalanche hit after days of winter storms that dumped nearly 10 feet (three meters) of snow. The region was also rocked by four strong earthquakes on Wednesday, though it was not clear if they set off the avalanche.
As the rescue work continued, relatives of the missing gathered anxiously at the Pescara hospital waiting for word of their loved ones.
“I just hope that my niece and her boyfriend will make it out of there,” said Melissa Riccardo. “We came to see if she was here.”
A few erupted in frustration at an evening news conference.
“The only news I have has been from the internet. They haven’t given me anything direct,” said Domenico Angelozzi, awaiting news of his sister and brother-in-law.
The number of survivors found and extracted evolved over the course of the day.
Marco Bini, a member of a police squad participating in the rescue, said the team opened a hole in the hotel roof Thursday night but “heard nothing.” Still, they pushed on, following a floor plan of the hotel until they found signs of life.
Upon seeing their rescuers, the survivors “called them angels,” he said.
“They weren’t in a lot of space” but it was enough to survive, an area probably protected by the snow, Bini told Italian state TV.
Late Friday, civil protection chief Fabrizio Curcio said 10 people had been found alive: Five who had been extracted, including the four children. Rescuers were working to remove the rest, he said.
“A beautiful feeling. Wonderful. I can’t describe it!” marveled Simona Di Carlo, aunt of Edoardo Di Carlo, after hearing word that he was among the children rescued, although his parents remained missing.
Rescue crews said a group of survivors was found in the hotel’s kitchen area in 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,” firefighter Giuseppe Romano 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.
“That hotel… should it have been open?” prosecutor Christina Tedeschini was quoted by the ANSA news agency 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. Marcella, Parete’s boss, 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 been hampered by fears of triggering new avalanches and building collapses onto possible survivors trapped in the rubble.
Workers have been clearing a seven-kilometer (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.
The force of the massive snow slide collapsed one wing of the hotel and rotated another off its foundation, pushing it downhill.
An Alpine rescue team was the first to arrive at the hotel on cross-country skis after a seven-kilometer journey that took two hours. They found Parete and Fabio Salzetta, a hotel maintenance worker, in a car in the resort’s parking lot.
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.