PENNE, Italy — Rescue workers on skis reached a four-star spa hotel buried by an avalanche in earthquake-stricken central Italy Thursday, reporting no signs of life as they searched for around 30 people believed trapped inside. Three bodies were recovered as heavy vehicles struggled to get to the scene.
Two people escaped the devastation at the Hotel Rigopiano, in the mountains of the Gran Sasso range, and called for help, but it took hours for responders to arrive to the remote zone.
Days of heavy snowfall had knocked out electricity and phone lines in many central Italian towns and hamlets, compounded by four powerful earthquakes that struck the region on Wednesday.
It wasn’t immediately clear which if any of the quakes triggered the avalanche. But firefighters said the sheer violence of the snow slide uprooted trees in its wake and wiped out parts of the hotel, leaving only some structures standing and others down the mountainside.
“There are mattresses that are hundreds of meters (yards) away from where the building was,” Luca Cari, firefighters’ spokesman, told the ANSA news agency.
The hotel in the Abruzzo region is about 45 kilometers (30 miles) from the coastal city of Pescara, at an altitude of about 1,200 meters (3,940 feet). The area, which has been buried under snowfall for days, is located in the broad swath of central Italy between Rieti and Teramo that was jolted by Wednesday’s quakes, one of which had a 5.7 magnitude.
Accounts emerged of hotel guests messaging rescuers and friends for help Wednesday, with at least one attempt at raising the alarm rebuffed for several hours.
Giampiero Parete, a chef vacationing at the hotel, called his boss when the avalanche struck and begged for him to mobilize rescue crews. His wife Adriana and two children, Ludovica and Gianfilippo, were trapped inside, employer Quintino Marcella told The Associated Press.
Parete had left the hotel briefly to get some medicine for his wife from their car, and survived as a result.
“He said the hotel was submerged and to call rescue crews,” Marcella said, adding that he phoned police and the Pescara prefect’s office, but that no one believed him. “The prefect’s office said it wasn’t true, because everything was OK at the hotel.”
Marcella said he insisted, and called other emergency numbers until someone finally took him seriously and mobilized a rescue, starting at 8 p.m., more than two hours later.
When rescuers on skis arrived at the hotel in Florindola in the early morning hours of Thursday, they found just two people alive: Parete and Fabio Salzetta, identified by Italian media as a maintenance worker at the hotel. There were no other signs of life, with rescue crews saying they yelled out but heard no replies, and were using rescue dogs.
Parete was being treated for hypothermia at a hospital in Pescara. The Romanian foreign ministry reported three Romanian citizens missing in the hotel — an adult and two children; they were believed to be Parete’s family.
Video shot by teams entering the still-standing parts of the hotel showed huge piles of filthy snow and debris piled up inside the corridors, stairwells and the indoor pool area, having slammed through the outer walls of the building. The audio is silent except for the steps of the cameraman. The largest wall of snow shown was in the pool area, where plastic lounge chairs were flipped on their sides and Christmas decorations still dangled from the ceiling.
The bar area appeared flooded, with nearby cracked skylights covered with snow outside.
Aerial video shot by helicopter crews showed rescue workers on top of the snow-covered hotel, digging holes down to try to get in.
Civil protection authorities said that around 30 people were missing. By Thursday afternoon, three bodies had been removed. Civil protection officials said the risk of further avalanches was factoring into the search effort.
Premier Paolo Gentiloni, arriving at the civil protection headquarters in the area at midday Thursday, sought to deflect criticism of the rescue efforts and urged authorities to redouble efforts to reach people isolated by the quakes and snow, which had dumped as much as 3 meters (10 feet) in some places.
Residents have been complaining for days that they have been without electricity and phone service and have been house-bound because of what Gentiloni called a “record snowfall.”
“I ask everyone if possible to multiply their efforts,” Gentiloni said. “I ask politicians to show sobriety respecting the difficulty of the situation and the commitment of civil and military crews who are responding.”
The buried hotel was just one of several rescues underway: Video footage from the Italian financial police force showed a gray-haired man being led to safety by rescuers through a path dug out of deep snow elsewhere else in the region.
Snow continued to fall Thursday with reports of people being isolated in many places. Daiana Nguyen, a resident of a town in the province of Teramo, told SKY TG24 that 3 meters (about 10 feet) of snow had fallen and that people were “completely isolated.”
“They talk about sending in the army: Thirty to 40 men came with shovels. We need heavy machinery!” she said.
The timing of the avalanche Wednesday remained unclear, but the hotel posted a notice on its Facebook page that its phones were down around 9 a.m. following the first of Wednesday’s quakes.
Marcella, a restaurant owner on the nearby coast, said he received the call from Parete, his chef, at around 5:30 p.m. He reported that all of the guests had checked out and were waiting for the roads to be cleared on Wednesday afternoon when the avalanche struck. Initially the road was to be cleared by 3 p.m., but that was delayed until 7 p.m.
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, while no one died in the strong aftershocks in October largely because population centers had already been evacuated.
On Tuesday, the hotel posted photos of the recent snowfall, calling it “a dream Tuesday. Snow is giving us spectacular scenes.”