‘Miracle underway’: Rescuers pull out avalanche survivors

This frame from video shows Italian firefighters extracting a boy alive from under snow and debris of an hotel that was hit by an avalanche on Wednesday, in Rigopiano, central Italy, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (Italian Firefighters/ANSA via AP)

FARINDOLA, Italy (AP) — With cheers of “Bravo! Bravo!” 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. Four children were among the 10 people found alive — and one asked for cookies when she got out.

The news buoyed rescue workers who had already located four bodies in the rubble of the luxury Hotel Rigopiano, 180 kilometers (112 miles) northeast of Rome, where the avalanche dumped 16½ feet (5 meters) of snow on top of the resort.

“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.

Relatives of the missing rushed from the rescue operations center in the mountains 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 discovery came around 11 a.m. Video released by rescuers showed a boy wearing blue snow pants and a matching ski jacket emerging through a tunnel dug in the snow. It was Gianfilippo Parete, the 8-year-old son of Giampiero Parete, a chef vacationing at the resort who had gone to his car when the avalanche struck 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 told rescuers that her 6-year-old daughter, Ludovica, was still trapped inside. Mother and son were helped to a stretcher for the helicopter ride out.

They were then reunited with Parete at a hospital in the coastal town of Pescara, suffering from hypothermia and dehydration but otherwise in good health, hospital officials said.

“They had heavy clothes,” said Dr. Rossano di Luzio. “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 was later rescued and asked for cookies when she got out: Ringos, an Italian version of Oreos, said Quintino Marcella, the restaurant owner who rallied the rescue after getting the phone call from her father.

About 30 people were trapped inside the hotel in the Gran Sasso mountain range when the avalanche hit Wednesday after days of winter storms that dumped up to three meters (nearly 10 feet) of snow in some places. The region was also rocked by four 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.

“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, civil protection chief Fabrizio Cari said a total of 10 people had been found alive: Five who had been extracted, including 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 survivors. “But I would like to see him.”

Rescue crews said one 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.

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.

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, in that historic moment, 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 also 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.

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 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.

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