Hope flickers as Italy avalanche survivors tell of trauma

In this undated photo released Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, rescuers work in the area of the avalanche-hit Rigopiano hotel, central Italy. 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. (Corpo Nazionale Soccorso Alpino e Speleologico/The National Alpine Cliff and Cave Rescue Co

PENNE, Italy: Survivors of Italy’s avalanche disaster recounted Sunday how they ate snow to stay hydrated and sung to keep their spirits up while huddling in pitch-black, cramped cavities in the mangled wreckage of the Hotel Rigopiano. Their traumatic tales emerged as rescuers said they hoped to find some of the 24 people still buried in the icy ruins, more than 48 hours after they last detected signs of life.

“Even if there are no signs of life, you could drill through a wall and suddenly there’d be contact. That’s what happened with the other survivors,” said Luca Cari, a spokesman for the rescue operation.

The missing total was raised by one to 24 by local authorities after survivors said a Senegalese man was working at the hotel. He was not on staff lists and no friends or family had reported him as missing.

The avalanche hit the hotel at dusk Wednesday with a force police have calculated as the equivalent of 4,000 fully loaded articulated lorries hurtling down a steep slope at 100 kilometers per hour.

Four days later, rescue teams were working around the clock with only two-hour rest breaks to ensure that the first responders most familiar with the layout maximize their time on-site.

The risk of another avalanche remained high, as snow and fog continued to hamper the rescue effort in the mountains of central Italy.

The rescuers were concentrating on two sections of ruins, including one at the back of the hotel that was protected by a thick rock wall.

“We are fairly confident there are rooms intact there,” Cari said.

“The problem is getting to them. The holes we are climbing down into are narrow, and then we have to break through very thick walls to get into rooms, hoping to find someone inside.”

The survivors extracted so far, five adults and four children, were trapped for 40 hours before rescuers made contact.

“I’m Georgia and I’m alive,” student Georgia Galassi, 22, recalled saying. “It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever said,” she said.

Galassi and her boyfriend Vincenzo Forti, 25, had to wait another 18 hours before they were finally extracted, unscathed, early Saturday, the rescuers having concentrated on the children.

The survivors were all waiting to leave the hotel when the avalanche sent them flying.

“When I came round we were on the ground, bruised but not really hurt,” Georgia said.

“It was pitch black, the only thing we could hear were the voices of the others near us, echoing.”

Her boyfriend told visitors Sunday that he, Georgia and Giampaolo Matrone, whose arm was crushed by the impact, were squashed together in an area of around 1 square meter.

With the help of mobile phone lights before the batteries ran out, the survivors established they were spread across four separate pockets of varying sizes.

One of them, Francesca Bronzi, was alone, unable to stand because of a giant wooden beam.

“It was very claustrophobic but the worst thing was the thirst, I was constantly wetting my lips with ice and dirty snow,” she said.

Another collapsed beam had come to a halt centimeters above the head of 8-year-old Gianfilippo Parete, according to his mother Adriana. “I hugged him and I think we stayed like that for the rest of the time, day and night.”

Gianfilippo’s sister, 6-year-old Ludovica, was with two other boys in the adjacent remains of the hotel games room.

“Fortunately the mamma could hear her daughter and help her to stay calm,” Georgia said. The student said her partner had emerged as the leader of the group, singing whenever spirits flagged. “He kept us all up. He gave the group strength,” she said. “I just felt like I was trapped in a box. I cried a lot.”

As well as the nine pulled out, there were two survivors who were outside the hotel when the avalanche struck. Five bodies had been recovered by Sunday afternoon, including both parents of one of the boy survivors.

The disaster followed powerful earthquakes in the region earlier Wednesday combined with snowfalls not seen in half a century.

An investigation has been opened into the disaster. It could lead to manslaughter charges with questions mounting over whether the luxury spa should ever have been built, and if it should have been evacuated before the avalanche.

Broadcaster Rai reported Sunday that the hotel’s owner had asked authorities to help evacuate the hotel before the avalanche.

It quoted an email in which he described the situation as “worrying” and the guests as terrified because of the tremors and heavy snow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 23, 2017, on page 11.




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