Italy hotel avalanche survivor’s call for help was ‘ignored for hours’ with 30 estimated missing, feared dead

Rescue workers have reported no signs of life at a luxury Italian hotel buried by an avalanche as it emerges one survivor’s attempt to raise the alarm was ignored for several hours.

Key points:

  • Two bodies have been recovered of the estimated 30 people trapped inside
  • It took hours for responders to reach the remote zone on skis
  • Survivor said he phoned police but no-one believed him

Two bodies have been recovered of the estimated 30 people trapped inside as the risk of more avalanches slowed the search effort.

Two people escaped the devastation at the Hotel Rigopiano, in the mountains of the Gran Sasso range, and called for help, but it took hours for responders to reach the remote zone on skis.

Days of heavy snowfall had knocked out electricity and phone lines in many central Italian towns and hamlets, and four powerful earthquakes struck the region on Wednesday (Thursday AEDT).

It is not immediately clear if any of the quakes triggered the avalanche, but firefighters said the sheer violence of the 300-metre-wide snow slide uprooted trees in its wake and wiped out parts of the hotel.

The hotel in the Abruzzo region is about 45 kilometres from the coastal city of Pescara, at an altitude of about 1,200 metres.

Alarm raised hours before crews mobilised

Accounts emerged of hotel guests messaging rescuers and friends for help on Wednesday, with at least one attempt at raising the alarm rebuffed for several hours.

Giampiero Parete, a chef vacationing at the hotel, called his boss when the avalanche struck and begged him to mobilise rescue crews.

His wife Adriana and two children, Ludovica and Gianfilippo, were trapped inside, the employer, Quintino Marcella, told The Associated Press.

Mr Parete had left the hotel briefly to get some medicine for his wife from their car, and survived as a result.

“He said the hotel was submerged and to call rescue crews,” Mr Marcella said, adding that he phoned police and the Pescara prefect’s office, but that no-one believed him.

“The prefect’s office said it wasn’t true, because everything was OK at the hotel.”

Mr Marcella said he insisted, and called other emergency numbers until someone finally took him seriously and mobilised a rescue at 8:00pm, more than two hours later.

When rescuers on skis arrived at the hotel in the early morning hours of Thursday, they found just two people alive: Mr Parete and Fabio Salzetta, identified by Italian media as a hotel maintenance worker.

There were no other signs of life, with rescue crews saying their shouts received no replies.

Rescue effort hampered by snowslides

Walter Milan, spokesman for the National Alpine rescue corps, said rescue teams tried to reach the site in a snowplow but were blocked by uprooted trees and rocks on the road.

Crews donned cross-country skis for the final 7km, two-hour stretch to reach the hotel.

“The access is not easy, the bad weather didn’t help. There is a lot of snow but I have to say that our work is going on quickly considering the size of the avalanche,” he told reporters in Penne, the staging area for the rescue.

He said the search effort consisted first of doing a sight and sound survey of the area, and then breaking up the disaster zone into smaller pockets and moving to investigate each quadrant.

Heavy equipment was struggling to reach the area and only 25 vehicles had arrived, along with 135 rescue workers, Civil Protection operations chief Titi Postiglione said.

She said the risk of further avalanches was slowing the delicate work.

“It’s an enormously complex situation, and we are very concerned,” she said.