Rescue crews who reached the four-star mountain resort on skis found only eerie silence Thursday after a huge avalanche flattened the hotel, trapping more than 30 people inside. Two bodies were recovered, but the search for survivors was hampered by heavy snowfall and fears the buildings would collapse.
Two people escaped the devastation at the Hotel Rigopiano in the mountains of central Italy and called for help. But it took hours for responders to verify their claims and arrive at the remote earthquake-stricken zone. They worked through the night, but hopes were dimming of finding survivors.
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 four powerful earthquakes struck the region.
It wasn't clear if the quakes triggered the avalanche. But emergency responders said the force of the massive snow slide collapsed a wing of the hotel that faced the mountain and rotated another off its foundation, pushing it downhill.
"The situation is catastrophic," said Marshall Lorenzo Gagliardi of the alpine rescue service, who was among the first at the scene. "The mountain-facing side is completely destroyed and buried by snow: the kitchen, hotel rooms, hall."
The hotel in the mountain town of Farindola in Italy's Abruzzo region, is about 30 miles (45 kilometers) from the coastal city of Pescara, at an altitude of about 3,940 feet (1,200 meters). The area, which has been buried under snowfall for days, is located in the broad swath of central Italy that was jolted by Wednesday's quakes, one of which had a 5.7 magnitude.
Farindola Mayor Ilario Lacchetta estimated that more than 30 people were unaccounted for: the hotel had 24 guests, four of them children, and 12 employees onsite.
Accounts emerged of guests messaging 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 him to mobilize rescue crews. His wife Adriana and two children, Ludovica, 6, and Gianfilippo, 8, were trapped inside, restaurant owner Quintino Marcella told The Associated Press.
Parete had left the hotel briefly to get some medicine from the car for his wife, 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 because the hotel had reported it was fine a few hours earlier.
"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 a civil protection official finally took him seriously and mobilized a rescue at 8 p.m., more than two hours later.
Rescue teams had tried to reach the scene in a snowplow but were blocked by fallen trees and rocks. They used cross-country skis for the final seven-kilometer, two-hour journey and found Parete and Fabio Salzetta, a hotel maintenance worker, in a car in the resort's parking lot.
There were no other signs of life.
"Unfortunately we haven't had any positive signs since the morning," firefighter spokesman Luca Cari told state-run RAI television.
Parete was taken to a hospital and Salzetta stayed behind with rescuers to help identify where guests might be buried and how crews could enter the buildings, rescuers said.
Fabrizio Curcio, head of the civil protection, said the search was complicated because so much of the hotel structure was "imploded" by the force of the snow, creating partial collapses that rendered the whole structure unstable.
Crews were working through the night and were still hopeful of finding survivors, he said, though he acknowledged the prospects were dimming with the passage of time.
Video shot by rescuers showed huge piles of filthy snow and debris piled inside hotel corridors, stairwells and the indoor pool area. There was no sound except for the steps of the cameraman. The largest wall of snow was in the pool area, where plastic lounge chairs were flipped over and Christmas decorations dangled from the ceiling.
The bar area appeared flooded, with nearby cracked skylights covered with snow outside.
Heavy equipment — snowplows and other earthmoving equipment — were struggling to reach the area and only 25 vehicles had arrived, along with 135 rescue workers, said Civil Protection operations chief Titi Postiglione. She said the risk of further avalanches was slowing the delicate work.
"It's an enormously complex situation, and we are very concerned," she said.
Premier Paolo Gentiloni, arriving in the area at midday Thursday, sought to deflect criticism of the rescue work and urged authorities to redouble efforts to reach people isolated by the quakes and snow, which had dumped as much as 10 feet (three meters) in some places.
House-bound residents had complained for days of being without electricity and phone service 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 as residents remained isolated in many small hamlets. Daiana Nguyen, a resident of a town in the province of Teramo, told SKY TG24 that people felt "abandoned."
"They talk about sending in the army: Thirty to 40 men came with shovels. We need heavy machinery!" she said.
Relatives and friends of hotel guests spent anxious hours waiting for word.
Alessandro Di Michelangelo posted a note on the hotel's Facebook page late Wednesday asking for news of his brother, sister-in-law and their 6-year-old son, Samuel. "We are worried. We haven't had news from them ... They were guests in the hotel."
Contacted Thursday night, he said he still had no news.
Gianluca Valensise, a seismologist at Italy's national vulcanology center, said it wasn't clear if the quakes triggered the avalanche, since so much snow had fallen in recent days. The closest monitors to the hotel didn't indicate strong ground acceleration even during the biggest quake, suggesting it wasn't felt particularly strongly in the mountains.
"At the most it was a trigger, but certainly not the reason," he said. "The avalanche certainly would have come down sooner or later, but the distance from the epicenter is quite substantial."
Marcella, the restaurant owner, said he received the call from Parete at around 5:30 p.m. Wednesday. The chef reported that all of the guests had checked out and were waiting in the front hall for the roads to be cleared when the avalanche struck.
Parete was being treated for hypothermia at a hospital in Pescara. The Romanian foreign ministry reported three Romanian citizens were among the missing in the hotel — an adult and two children believed to be Parete's family.
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. No one died in strong aftershocks in October, largely because population centers had already been evacuated.