Reportage. Perhaps nine people were rescued from the Hotel Rigopiano, swept away in an avalanche in Central Italy.

Survivors pulled from hotel rubble as investigators search for wrongdoing

Suddenly, a cry rose from the slopes of Gran Sasso that shook the Boot. It was around 11:30 p.m. “They are alive! We are working to get them out, but they are alive.” That was the first radio message from the firefighters, which was announced among the rubble of the Hotel Rigopiano in Farindola, Pescara province. There are survivors of the avalanche among the debris. “We need blankets and helicopters to take them away, because they are hurt.”

Then, as always happens in these circumstances, differing reports on the number of survivors emerged: There are six survivors. No, eight, maybe more. Now 10. The most widely reported number is nine, among them four children. The mayor of Farindola, Ilario Lacchetta, had a few hours earlier said, “There is less hope. Right now, I feel I can only embrace the families of the missing.” Now he announced, “Other survivors have been identified. Yes, there are others. There are clear signs.”

From within the snowy tomb — under an immense avalanche that that broke off the 2,400-meter slow of Mount Siella, crashed into the hotel and buried 35 people, including guests and workers — voices could be heard asking for help. “Come on, let’s dig!” And the rescuers kept digging, with greater urgency, heartened by the voices.

They broke through a barrier of ice that covered a room from which, amid the commotion, could be heard shouts of joy and applause. Shortly afterward, the brown-haired head of a mother came out. “My daughter is in the next room,” she said. “Please save her.” And again, men and children were dug out of the nightmare, one behind the other.

Many families had come looking for relaxation and silence in the mountains. There were young couples on vacation, maybe for the weekend, in that little piece of paradise on the Apennines Mountains. There were parents waiting for relatives — relatives who now wait in apprehension.

Giampiero Parete, from Montesilvano, is a cook who had gone with his family to relax at the 4-star resort and had launched at the first alarm when the avalanche unleashed on the structure. The man had gone out to get some medicines from his car at the time of the tragedy. And he was safe. Now, from the debris, they pulled his wife Adriana and his children Ludovica and Gian Filippo. Giampiero embraced them.

The survivors, holding hands under these taxing weather conditions, were transported by helicopter to hospitals in L’Aquila and Pescara. “They’re all pretty good, apart from hypothermia,” said the doctors at the Pescara hospital. There they created a mini department which will accommodate all the survivors, assisted by emergency physicians and psychologists.

But how could they survive, buried for 43 hours in freezing temperatures? It’s thanks to air bubbles, the clothes they were wearing and the fact they were not in direct contact with the snow. “And they lit a fire,” rescuers said. “We smelled the odor and there was smoke coming out. We saw it. They were all in the kitchen. We do not move randomly. We collected evidence and followed directions and an accurate map.”

It’s not all good news, unfortunately. Because alongside the lucky miracle came the discovery of victims.

As the rescuers continue to fight snowdrifts and break through walls and frost, the Pescara prosecutor has launched an investigation into this tragedy. The prosecutor entrusted the investigation to the Carabinieri and forestry officers, who are collecting personal data and witness statements. One of the documents already on record is the avalanche warnings issued days ago by Meteomont, the National Snow and avalanche prevention service, which indicated a level 4 risk on the Gran Sasso area. The scale’s maximum value is 5. There were three meters of snow, piled up in the days before, that went down dragging rocks and debris, due to the wind, and the ground, weakened by the rains.

It was an avalanche of “an unprecedented violence.” So much that it swept the hotel away. Were the conditions dire enough to warrant evacuation orders from the region or the local authorities? Was there any negligence or faults in regards to the death of the guests and the hotel staff? Could the delay in rescue operations have been avoided? Why didn’t the snowplows and other snow equipment requested by the owners of the tourist complex arrive?

But there are other questions as well. Looking at the topography images of the area, it can be observed that the hotel is built in the valley of a canyon that narrows dangerously close to the building. Geologists said the avalanche was all the more devastating because of the energy and speed increased just behind the building.

The location, therefore, may not have been appropriate for construction. In the past, there was a corruption investigation and trial in Rigopiano, which ended in the acquittal of all accused. In fact, it was Pescara prosecutor Gennaro Varone who in 2008 opened an investigation into bribes and the promise of jobs in exchange for city council votes to legalize the occupation of public land for the expansion of the building, which was originally an old farmhouse.

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