ROME — A large chunk of an Alpine glacier broke loose Sunday and roared down a mountain in Italy, sending ice, snow and rock slamming into hikers on a popular trail on the peak and killing at least six and injuring nine, authorities said, warning that the toll might climb.
Some 17 people remain unaccounted for, officials said Monday, with sixteen cars remaining unclaimed in the area’s parking lot, and authorities seeking to track down occupants through license plates. It was unclear how many of the cars might have belonged to the already identified victims or to the injured, all of whom were flown by helicopters on Sunday to hospitals.
Drones were being used to look for any of the missing as well as verify safety.
Trento Prosecutor Sandro Raimondi said that 17 hikers were believed to be missing, the Italian news agency LaPresse reported.
Veneto regional Gov. Luca Zaia said some of those hiking in the area on Sunday were roped together as they climbed.
Nationalities of the known dead haven’t been disclosed, and conditions were too dangerous Monday morning for rescue crews with dogs to resume the search for those missing or to bring down the bodies.
The bodies will be brought to an ice skating rink in the resort town of Canazei in the Dolomite mountain range for identification.
Raimondi was quoted as saying two of the nine injured are Germans. Zaia told reporters that one of the Germans was a 65-year-old man. Of the injured patients, one of those in intensive care has yet to be identified.
The patients suffered chest and cranial injuries, said Zaia.
Rescuers said conditions downslope from the glacier, which has been melting for decades, were still too unstable to early Monday to send back teams of people and dogs to dig into tons of debris.
Premier Mario Draghi and the head of the national Civil Protection agency were traveling to the stricken area Monday for briefings. .
What caused a pinnacle of the glacier to break off and thunder down the slope at a speed estimated by experts at some nearly 200 mph wasn’t immediately known. But the heat wave gripping Italy since May, bringing temperatures unusually high for the start of summer even up in the normally cooler Alps was being cited as a likely factor.
Jacopo Gabrieli, a polar sciences researcher at Italy’s state-run CNR research center, noted that the long heat wave, spanning May and June, was the hottest in northern Italy in that period for nearly 20 years.
“It’s absolutely an anomaly,’’ Gabrieli said in an interview on Italian state TV Monday. Like other experts, he said it would have been impossible to predict when or if a serac — a pinnacle from a glacier’s overhang — could break off, as it did on Sunday.
Alpine rescuers on Sunday noted that late last week, the temperature on the 11,000-foot high peak had topped 10C (50F), far higher than usual. Operators of rustic shelters along the mountainside said temperatures at the 2,000-meter (6,600 foot) level recently reached 75 F, unheard-of heat in a place where excursionists go in summer to keep cool.
The glacier, in the Marmolada range, is the largest in the Dolomite mountains in northeastern Italy. People ski on it in the winter. But the glacier has been rapidly melting away over the past decades, with much of its volume gone.
Dubbed the “queen of the Dolomites,” Marmolada rises about about 11,000 feet and is the highest of the 18 peaks in that eastern range of the Italian Alps, offering spectacular views of other Alpine peaks.
Experts at Italy’s state-run CNR research center, which has a polar sciences institute, estimated a couple of years ago that the glacier won’t exist anymore within 25-30 years.
The Mediterranean basin, which includes southern European countries like Italy, has been identified by U.N. experts as a “climate change hot spot,” likely to suffer heat waves and water shortages, among other consequences.