A large chunk of Alpine glacier has broken loose and slid down a mountainside in northern Italy, sending ice, snow and rock slamming into hikers on a popular trail on the peak and killing at least five and injuring eight, authorities said.
“Rescue operations are in progress following a large ice avalanche involving excursionists”, the Trento provincial government said on Sunday, adding that there was likely to be a “heavy toll” of injuries or deaths.
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Italian RAI state television said the fatalities numbered six, but that death toll could not immediately be confirmed. It was not known how many hikers might be missing.
The National Alpine and Cave Rescue Corps tweeted that the search of the affected area of Marmolada mountain involved at least five helicopters and rescue dogs.
“There are five dead among the people hit by the detachment of the serac,” the emergency service’s tweet said, referring to a technical term for a pinnacle of a glacier. “There are eight injured, two of them in grave condition.”
The SUEM dispatch service, which is based in the nearby Veneto region, said 18 people who were above the area where the ice struck will be evacuated by the Alpine rescue corps.
The dispatch service said the avalanche consisted of a “pouring down of snow, ice and rock”.
Marmolada, towering about 3,300m (10,800 feet), is the highest peak in the eastern Dolomites.
The Alpine rescue service said in a tweet that the segment broke off near Punta Rocca (Rock Point), “along the itinerary normally used to reach the peak”.
It was not immediately clear what caused the section of ice to break away and rush down the peak’s slope. But the intense heat wave gripping Italy since late June could be a factor, Walter Milan, an Alpine rescue service spokesperson, told RAI state TV.
“The heat is unusual,” Milan said, noting that temperatures in recent days on the peak had topped 10 C (50 F). ”That’s extreme heat” for the peak, Milan said. “Clearly it’s something abnormal.”
The injured were flown to several hospitals in the regions of Trentino-Alto Adige and Veneto, according to rescue services.