Rescue crews located up to eight people alive in the kitchen of an avalanche-crushed hotel on Friday, an incredible discovery that boosted spirits two days after the massive snow slide buried around 30 people in the resort.
Video released by rescuers showed a boy, wearing blue snow pants and a matching ski shirt, emerging from the structure and crews mussing his hair in celebration.
Next was a woman with a long ponytail wearing red snow pants. “Brava Brava!” the rescuers cheered. The survivors appeared fully alert and walking on their own. Both were helped down to a stretcher for the helicopter ride out.
“This first news has obviously repaid all the rescuers’ efforts,” deputy interior minister Filippo Bubbico said.
First word of the discovery came at around 11 a.m. local time, news met with exhilaration after at least four people had already been found dead since Thursday.
“We found five people alive. We’re pulling them out. Send us a helicopter,” a rescuer said over firefighters’ radio, overheard by journalists who were making their way on foot toward the disaster site.
Later, the number rose to eight people, including two children, Italian news reports said.
Titi Postiglione, operations chief of the civil protection agency, confirmed six people were located, but the numbers were fluid: She said two had been extracted already and crews were working to get another four out of the rubble.
These survivors, she said “can give us a series of indications to help with our intervention plan, information to understand what happened and help direct the search.”
Rescue workers told RAI state television the survivors’ conditions were remarkably good, and that they had survived thanks to an air pocket in the kitchen. They were being flown by helicopter to area hospitals.
About 30 people were trapped inside the luxury Hotel Rigopiano when the avalanche hit on Wednesday afternoon, with two people initially surviving the devastation and calling out for help.
Search and rescue teams had maintained the hope of finding survivors even though the avalanche dumped up to five meters (17 feet) of snow on the hotel.
“We are hoping that the ceiling collapsed partially in some places and that someone remained underneath,” rescuer Lorenzo Gagliardi told SKY TG24.
Two bodies were recovered on the first day of searching and RAI state TV reported two more had been located but not yet removed.
The operations have been hampered by difficulty in accessing the remote hotel. Workers have been clearing a seven-kilometer (5.5-mile) road to bring in heavier equipment but it can handle only one-way traffic.
A convoy of rescue vehicles made slow progress to the hotel, blocked by snow piled three meters high in some places, fallen trees and rocks.
The first rescue teams had arrived on skis early Thursday, and firefighters were dropped in by helicopter. Snowmobiles were also being mobilized.
Days of heavy snowfall had knocked out electricity and phone lines in many central Italian towns and hamlets, and the hotel phones went down early Wednesday, just as the first of four powerful earthquakes struck the region.
It wasn’t clear if the quakes triggered the avalanche. But emergency responders said the force of the massive snow slide collapsed a wing of the hotel that faced the mountain and rotated another off its foundation, pushing it downhill.
One of the survivors reported that the guests had all checked out and were waiting for the road to be cleared to be able to leave. The snow plow scheduled for midafternoon never arrived, and the avalanche hit sometime around 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Prosecutors have opened a manslaughter investigation into the tragedy, and among the hypotheses being pursued is whether the avalanche threat wasn’t taken seriously enough, according to Italian media.
Farindola Mayor Ilario Lacchetta said the hotel had 24 guests, four of them children, and 12 employees were onsite at the time of the avalanche.
An Alpine rescue team was the first to arrive on cross-country skis after a seven-kilometer journey that took two hours. They found Giampaolo Parete, a guest who escaped the avalanche when he went to his car to get something, and Fabio Salzetta, a hotel maintenance worker, in a car in the resort’s parking lot.
Parete, whose wife and two children remain among the missing, was taken to a hospital while Salzetta stayed behind with rescuers to help identify where guests might be buried and how crews could enter the buildings, rescuers said.
The mountainous region of central Italy has been struck by a series of quakes since August that destroyed homes and historic centers in dozens of towns and hamlets. A deadly quake in August killed nearly 300. No one died in strong aftershocks in October, largely because population centers had already been evacuated.