ROME — In the darkness under tons of snow, the survivors reached for their only lifeline. From their phones, text messages were punched out to 112, the Italian emergency response number.
“Help,” one couple wrote after their hotel was buried in an earthquake-triggered avalanche, “we’re dying of cold.”
But when rescuers on Thursday finally reached the resort — swallowed by a wall of white that roared down the Gran Sasso mountains in central Italy a day earlier — there was only silence from under the crush of snow, rocks and splintered fir trees.
A handful of survivors waited in what was left of the Hotel Rigopiano. They included a man who was getting something from the family car just when the avalanche hit. Trapped below were his wife and two children. They were among up to 30 people listed as missing.
At least three bodies were found Thursday, as hopes for the others trapped faded hour by hour.
“There are so many dead,” Antonio Crocetta of the local alpine rescue workers told Italy’s state-run news agency ANSA. “The avalanche was huge.”
Crews were “working nonstop through the night” to clear roads and a space in front of the hotel for vehicles and search-and-rescue teams, said Carlo Torlontano, vice prefect of Pescara, a city about 30 miles east of the resort. He was noncommittal on hopes of finding survivors.
It was a disaster whose proportions and aftermath were set by twin blows from nature — in a region still trying to recover from major quakes last summer that toppled centuries-old buildings and nearly wiped out some villages.
The mountains of the Abruzzo region were battered by huge snowfall over the past days. Another storm hit Wednesday, dumping a fresh layer on the slopes. Then a series of moderate quakes was enough to unleash the deadly snow slide, experts say.
The avalanche also blocked the only twisting road to the four-star spa and hotel, built in an alpine glen at nearly 4,000 feet.
[In summer quakes, history turned to rubble]
Some rescuers used skis, and others were dropped by helicopter. The first rescue crews started to dig with shovels. Meanwhile, plows struggled to carve a route along the snow-choked access road to bring in heavy equipment.
Images from the scene showed hallways choked with snow, which also punched into the hotel lobby and buried tall peaked roofs. A frosty mist that had settled over the area slowly began to lift.
“The mist is easing now,” said Pierpaolo Petrucci, a representative in the regional assembly. “And when the mist dissipates, the ugliness appears.”
Among the survivors was Giampaolo Parete, 38, who told rescuers that he had gone to his car when the avalanche hit. His wife and two children were buried inside, ANSA reported.
“I saved myself because I’d gone to pick something up from the car,” he said. “The avalanche came and I was buried by snow, but I managed to get out. The car was not buried, so I stayed there and waited for rescue operators.”
Quintino Marcella, a restaurant owner, told the channel Sky TG24 that he received a call from one of his chefs, who was visiting the hotel. The chef escaped, but said his wife and two children were trapped inside.
“He calls me and says, ‘Help me, an avalanche has hit and the hotel isn’t there anymore. It’s disappeared. It’s buried,’ ” Marcella said.
“Help, help, help, help,” the chef cried to Marcella.
The list of the missing included a young couple from Italy’s eastern Marche region, another couple from the Abruzzo city of Chieti, and a family with a 7-year-old boy, Italian media reported.
Ilario Lacchetta, mayor of the nearby town of Farindola, said the toll could have been much worse if it had been a weekend when more guests are normally at the hotel, which he called the “jewel of the region’s crown.”
“Last Sunday, the Hotel Rigopiano had 200 guests, staff included — yesterday there were between 20 and 30 people, including some kids,” Lacchetta told La Stampa newspaper.
The earthquake-prone region was hit by at least three tremors around 5.7 magnitude Wednesday, prompting the avalanche. There have been heavy snowstorms throughout the area as well.
“Around here it does snow a lot, but not even the elderly can remember such a thing. If you add the snowstorm to the earthquake, you can understand how it all became difficult — we face two tragedies that could not have been foreseen,” Lacchetta added.
Primo di Nicola, editor of the local newspaper Il Centro, described some of the Abruzzo region as “basically offline,” with roads blocked by snow and toppled trees. “No water, no power, inaccessible roads,” he told The Washington Post.
In some areas, Italian authorities opened police stations and military barracks for people without heat or electricity.
Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni — facing criticism for the delays in reaching the hotel — blamed the recent “record snowfall” and urged political leaders to “multiply their efforts” to aid the Abruzzo region.
Gian Gabriele Ori, a geological expert at the Gabriele d’Annunzio University in Chieti, said the alpine forests in the region are normally enough to hold deep snow in place. But heavy snowfall and high winds in recent days probably had created a more unstable snow pack, he added.
“The earthquake was the spark that set in motion” the avalanche, whose speed and force “toppled the forest and then [hit] the hotel with destructive power.”
Central Italy has been struck by several earthquakes since August, when the historic centers of many towns were leveled, killing 300. Substantial aftershocks also occurred in October.
Schemm reported from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Murphy from Washington.
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