Italy avalanche: 6 people found alive in buried hotel

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PENNE, Italy (CNN) -- Rescuers have found six people alive under snow at the site of the avalanche that buried a hotel in central Italy, the local fire department said.

An official with the department, Luca Carie told CNN the rescuers are in contact with the group but are yet to reach them.

Up to 30 people are feared trapped in four-star Hotel Rigopiano, at the foot of the Gran Sasso mountain about 135 kilometers (85 miles) northeast of Rome.

It was buried in snow Wednesday afternoon after a series of earthquakes.

Officials said some could have survived in air pockets within the building but hopes of finding anyone alive had been fading Friday before the news broke that six had been found.

Conditions are still perilous. Searchers had to suspend operations between 2 and 7 a.m. local time due to fears of avalanche and continued aftershocks. But rescue operations resumed at first light.

Earlier Friday, Italy's Interior Minister Marco Minniti, briefing reporters in the nearby town of Penne, had said that the families of the missing still held out hope but were coming to terms with the fact that this was looking increasingly unlikely.

Luxury hotel

Civil Protection services said that the hotel was in the process of being evacuated due to the earthquake when the avalanche hit. Guests had settled their bills and were waiting together in the lobby with their luggage.

Officials based estimates of the missing on guest registration and staff numbers. The hotel has 43 rooms and spa facilities, according to website TripAdvisor.

Italian fire department spokesman Luca Cari, who was at the scene, told CNN that the hotel had been "completely slammed" in the avalanche and debris was scattered as far as 100 meters from the hotel structure, making the search area large.

The force of the avalanche was so great that the hotel building has shifted 10 meters down the slope from its foundations, the Civil Protection Department said.

Survivors

Two people were rescued from the site of the hotel in the hours after the avalanche, Civil Protection Department chief Fabrizio Curcio told journalists.

One of them was a man vacationing with his wife and two children, 6 and 8, who said he missed being caught in the destruction only because he had walked to his car to get medicine for his wife just before the avalanche hit.

"The avalanche came down and I was buried in snow, but I managed to get out. The car was not buried so I waited there for the rescuers to come," Giampiero Parete was reported to have said.

The whereabouts of his wife, a Romanian national, and their children were unknown Thursday.

Difficult access

Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said the country hadn't seen this much snowfall in decades.

The deep snow combined with the earthquake created a perfect storm of sorts, exacerbating the aftermath of the temblor.

"For the weather, you tell people to stay in their homes, while for the earthquake, citizens must be brought outside. Putting together these two elements is extremely complicated," Curcio said.

Access to the hotel has been difficult, but road crews cleared much of the snow and fallen trees by Thursday night, allowing heavy rescue equipment to reach the building.

Snow machines and helicopters had earlier taken searchers, including dogs, up the mountain.

Rescuers battled blizzards and strong winds to reach the site, some having to ski for several kilometers in the darkness to get there because some roads were impassable.

When the rescuers arrived, they found only the building's top story and roof visible above the snow.

Video recorded by rescue teams showed what appears to be a smashed wall or window in the hotel's lobby, with tree branches, snow and other debris piled on the floor.

The heavy snowfall in the 24 hour-period after the quake means that the risk of more avalanches is still high, CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller said.

Local guests

Authorities have yet to give a definitive number for those missing. The avalanche struck at about 5 p.m., meaning unregistered visitors or hikers could well have been there as well as registered guests.

Many of the guests are believed to be local people who were taking advantage of discounted rates to stay in a normally pricey spa hotel before the peak February skiing season.

One of the guests had been made homeless by tremors in the Abruzzo region in August and had booked into the hotel on a break away from their temporary accommodation.

Poor communications are complicating efforts by authorities to establish who is missing.

People in shelters

Central Italy was rocked by more than 10 earthquakes Wednesday, four of them above magnitude 5, according to the US Geological Survey.

Rescuers were still trying to get to other areas isolated by the avalanche, Gentiloni said, and authorities were hoping to bring power back to as many as 90,000 people who were left in darkness overnight from the extreme weather.

Many people slept in shelters overnight Thursday to Friday despite the bitter cold and continuing snowfall because of the fear of more avalanches.

An initial 5.3-magnitude quake hit in the morning near the town of of Amatrice, which was devastated by powerful earthquakes in August. The tremors continued for more than six hours, with one as strong as magnitude 5.7.

While the epicenter was 90 kilometers (about 55 miles) northeast of Rome, the quake was felt in the capital.