Abruzzo avalanche toll climbs to 17 as hopes diminish

Twelve unaccounted for at hotel in Abruzzo region as second tragedy hits nearby: the crash of an emergency helicopter.

    Search operations continued amid extreme weather conditions, according to authorities [EPA]
    Search operations continued amid extreme weather conditions, according to authorities [EPA]

    Hopes faded that any more survivors of the devastating avalanche that buried an Italian resort hotel would be found after the death toll more than doubled to 17, with 12 people still unaccounted for.

    As Italy's central Abruzzo region and its rescue crews coped with the ongoing emergency on Tuesday, a second tragedy unfolded nearby when an emergency helicopter crashed at an Apennine ski resort, killing six people.

    The twin disasters, which followed a series of earthquakes and weeks of heavy snow, have brought the region to its knees. Thousands of people have been without electricity for over a week and emergency crews have been working around the clock.

    The helicopter was ferrying an injured skier off the slopes of the Campo Felice ski area when it slammed into a mountainside buried in thick fog. Five crew members and the skier were killed.

     According to Carabinieri police and Alpine rescuers on the scene, all six occupants were killed in the crash [Claudio Lattanzo/EPA]

    Emergency workers at the centre where rescue efforts at the avalanche-entombed Hotel Rigopiano are being coordinated rushed to the chopper crash site about 100km away. Crews on the ground at the scene hugged one another in solidarity.

    The death toll from the January 18 avalanche, meanwhile, climbed to 17 on Tuesday with the discovery of 10 more bodies. Twelve people remained missing. Nine people previously had been pulled out alive from the rubble, the last one early on Saturday.

    Firefighters' spokesman Alberto Maiolo said search crews aided by excavators finally were able to penetrate the central part of the hotel for the first time and found bodies in the bar and kitchen area.

    He said there were no signs of life.

    "Logically, hopes fade as time passes, but we are continuing to search and trying to do it as quickly as possible," he said.

    Risk assessment

    The first funerals were held Tuesday, with crowds gathering under a steady rain outside the hilltop church in Farindola to pay their respects to Alessandro Giancaterino, the hotel's chief waiter.

    Giancaterino, one of the first victims pulled from the wreckage, had offered to stay for a double shift on January 18 to spare a colleague from having to make his way to the hotel through the snow, which was two to three metres high in some places.

    "He was a great, hard worker. He was very professional," said his brother, Massimiliano Giancaterino. "This is the memory that I want to keep of my brother, beyond obviously the private ones that I keep in my heart."

    Prosecutors are investigating whether a series of missed communications, underestimations of risks and delays in responding to days of heavy snowfall contributed to the toll from the avalanche.

    In addition, they are looking into the original construction of the isolated resort and whether it should have been open for business at all, in such conditions.

    Giancaterino, who is also a former mayor of Farindola, said it was useless to speculate now, while an investigation was just beginning, about whether the tragedy could have been avoided.

    "Now, it is not the time for hypothesis," he said. "It is the time of pain and above all my thoughts go to the friends and relatives of those who are still missing," he said.

    Two of the avalanche's youngest survivors, Samuel Di Michelangelo and Edoardo Di Carlo, were discharged from the hospital on Tuesday.

    Officials have confirmed that Edoardo's parents were killed in the avalanche, while Samuel's are still unaccounted for.

    Before their release, the boys had a video conference call with one of their heroes: Argentine forward Paulo Dybala, one of Italian team Juventus' standout football players.

    "He's very sensitive about these types of things and was happy to participate," a Juventus spokesperson said, on customary condition of anonymity.

    Two other survivors, Vincenzo Forti and Giorgia Galassi, briefed police for several hours Tuesday and returned to their home on the Adriatic coast in Giulianova.

    Galassi told reporters outside her parents' home that she was reticent to speak publicly about the couple's ordeal, saying she wanted to respect the people who died and those still waiting to learn the fate of their loved ones.

    "I respect them. I have lived the same experience. I knew everyone," she said, Forti by her side.

    SOURCE: AP news agency


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