More than 7,000 people worked through the night, digging through debris and towering mounds of snow in search of survivors Friday after a series of earthquakes triggered a deadly avalanche that buried an Italian hotel.
The avalanche released so much snow that it took the first rescuers almost 12 hours — on skis — to reach the Hotel Rigopiano in the town of Farindola. National newspaper La Repubblica described the scene as "a natural paradise transformed into a frosty white hell."
Mario Mazzocca, undersecretary of the Abruzzo region's civil protection agency, told RAI, Italy's national public broadcaster, that 34 people were at the site when the avalanche hit. The national civil protection agency confirmed late Thursday that only two survivors and only two bodies had been found — leaving as many as 30 other people still unaccounted for. Several of those missing are believed to be children.
"There are many dead," Antonio Crocetta, a member of the Abruzzo mountain rescue team, told the Italian news agency ANSA. And Ilario Lacchetta, the mayor of Farindola, said, "The hopes of finding people alive are reduced by the hour."
The center of the rescue operation was the hotel, but the earthquakes that triggered it — four of magnitude 5.2 and higher in just five hours on Wednesday — caused damage across the region. The area has been shaken by dozens of aftershocks since a major earthquake in August killed nearly 300 people and ruined buildings in historic towns and hamlets.
Prosecutors have opened a manslaughter investigation in the tragedy, and among the hypotheses being pursued is whether the avalanche threat wasn't taken seriously enough, according to Italian media.
The civil protection agency confirmed that a third person was killed when a building collapsed in the small hilltop town of Castel Castagna in Teramo province. The Ortolano neighborhood of Campotosto, in L'Aquila province, was completely evacuated, the agency said.
In Rome, more than 100 miles away, the subway system was closed for several hours Wednesday following the quakes.
Fabrizio Curcio, director of the civil protection agency said mountains of snow reaching 13 feet high — perched on land still considered unstable because of the earthquakes — said the rescue operation at Hotel Rigopiano had to proceed slowly because continuing aftershocks meant "there is the possibility of further collapses."
Video shot by rescue teams showed huge piles of filthy snow and debris piled up inside corridors, stairwells and an indoor pool area, having slammed through the outer walls of the building. The largest wall of snow shown was in the pool area, where plastic lounge chairs were flipped on their sides and Christmas decorations still dangled from the ceiling.
The bar area appeared flooded, with nearby cracked skylights covered with snow outside.
Authorities said the two survivors were saved only because they were outside the hotel at the time. One of them, Giampaolo Parete, 38, a restaurant cook, said his wife and two children were among the missing.
Quintino Marcella, owner of the restaurant where Parete works, said in an interview on Italian TV that Parete and his family were on vacation when Parete called him via WhatsApp in a panic.
"He told me, 'There's been an avalanche. The hotel is gone — gone, buried.'"
Marcella said Parete told him he was outside when the avalanche hit because he'd gone to his car to get some medicine for his wife.
Parete said he had difficulty convincing authorities that an avalanche had struck the hotel. He told Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper that he called the prefecture in Pescara and was told that officials had been in touch with the hotel hours before and everything was fine.
He then called the police and the carabinieri, and rescue efforts were subsequently launched, though reportedly hours after the avalanche struck.
Alberto Albano, head of the emergency room at the nearby Pescara hospital, told NBC News that Parete was suffering from hypothermia but was stable.