Three bodies have been retrieved from the scene of an avalanche in mountains in central Italy, triggered by strong earthquakes in the area.
Up to 30 people remain buried in a small hotel close to the Gran Sasso mountain in the Abruzzo region. The Rigopiano hotel is all but covered in snow, and rescue workers said they had yet to find any sign of life.
Two men who had been outside when disaster struck survived. Among those trapped inside the small hotel were two children.
“The hotel is almost completely destroyed. We’ve called out but we’ve heard no replies, no voices,” said Antonio Crocetta, a member of the Alpine Rescue squad.
“We’re digging and looking for people,” he said.
Dogs are trying to find signs of life but the extreme cold is hampering their efforts.
AP posted this footage to YouTube which gives an indication of the conditions in which rescuers are battling:
Rescue workers entered what appeared to be a lobby decorated with oil paintings and plants, where a landslide had torn through a wall, television footage showed.
Mattresses and furniture were spotted dozens of metres away and sniffer dogs were brought to the area to help locate possible survivors.
“I am alive because I went to get something from my car,” one of the two survivors, Giampiero Parete, told medical staff.
The alarm was raised by local residents in Farindola after the roof of the hotel partly collapsed. But a snowstorm and blocked routes made emergency services access to the hotel difficult.
Rescuers said at least 20 tourists and seven staff had been inside when the building was hit by the avalanche.
Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni called for national unity, saying Italy was caught in an “unprecedented vice” of earthquakes and heavy snows simultaneously.
The rescue operation was hampered by metres of snow which has fallen on the Gran Sasso in recent days.
Drifts made snow as deep as five metres in some places and snow ploughs struggled to cut a path up winding mountain roads.
The first rescuers only managed to arrive at 4.30am after having to ski through a blizzard to reach the site.
After dawn broke, emergency services sent in helicopters.
The avalanche shunted the 43-room hotel, which is 1,200 metres above sea level, some 10 metres down the hill.
The news comes after Italy was hit by four earthquakes with a magnitude of above 5.0 in four hours on Wednesday, killing one and bringing terror to snowbound mountain areas still recovering from last year’s series of deadly tremors.
The quakes, all measuring more than five magnitude, struck close to Amatrice, the mountain town devastated by an August earthquake that left nearly 300 people dead.
And as night fell and temperatures plummeted, fears mounted for isolated residents of remote hamlets cut off by heavy snowfall.
– with AAP