Emergency crews digging into an avalanche-slammed hotel have been cheered by the discovery of three puppies who survived for days under tonnes of snow, giving them new hope for the 22 people still missing in the disaster.
Five days after tonnes of snow, rocks and uprooted trees covered the Hotel Rigopiano in central Italy, rescue crews were still digging by hand or with shovels and chainsaws in hopes of finding alive some of the people still buried.
Firefighter spokesman Fabio German said the three puppies showed that conditions under the snow could still support life.
Emergency crews have been hoping that the missing may have found air pockets under the debris, and that the snow itself had insulated them from the frigid temperatures.
The body of a seventh victim was found in the buried ruins on Monday.
The woman’s body was recovered but rescue crews were still trying to recover the body of another victim from the rubble.
So far nine people have been rescued from the Hotel Rigopiano, including four children who were extracted from under tonnes of snow and debris on Friday.
More than two days have passed since anyone has been pulled out alive from the hotel, and conditions at the site are deteriorating, with the metres of heavy snow turning to ice.
Firefighter spokesman Luca Cari said emergency crews were working with an “operational hypothesis” that people might still be alive, but he stressed “we are fighting against time”.
“We know we need to work fast, but in relation to an environment that doesn’t allow for fast intervention,” he said on Sky TG24.
The first survivors were released on Monday from a hospital in the nearby city of Pescara, including Giorgia Galassi and her boyfriend, Vincenzo Forti.
“Thank you, thank you everyone!” Ms Galassi said as she waved from the front door of her parents’ home, on the Adriatic coast.
Firefighters rescue a boy and his mother from the hotel
Authorities warned of risks facing resort
Meanwhile the investigation intensified into whether local government officials underestimated the threat facing the hotel, which was already covered with two metres of snow, had no phone service and had dwindling gas supplies when a series of earthquakes rocked central Italy on the morning of January 18.
Italian newspapers reproduced what they said was an email sent by the hotel owner, Bruno Di Tommaso, to local and provincial authorities that afternoon asking for help because “the situation has become worrisome”.
“The hotel guests are terrorised by the earthquakes and have decided to stay out in the open,” he said.
“We’ve tried to do everything to keep them calm, but since they can’t leave due to the blocked roads, they’re prepared to spend the night in their cars.”
Already, the Pescara prefect’s office has faced criticism after a local restaurant owner said his calls reporting the avalanche were ignored.