Trapped in the Snow

Italian Hotel’s Too-True Earthquake Avalanche Horror Story

A day after the upscale Hotel Rigopiano was buried in an earthquake-induced avalanche, 30 guests and staff are still missing, and rescuers are working short shifts in the bitter cold.

© Stringer . / Reuters

PENNE, Italy—Freezing to death must surely be among the worst ways to die. But imagine what it would be like to be stuck in a luxury resort spa that was buried by an avalanche.

Imagine those first few long hours trying to find a way out, blocked by fallen hotel room furniture, trapped under a bureau or a mattress. The snow keeps falling, creating a barrier of insulation that keeps your screams muffled. The subzero temperatures freeze your fingers, your toes, and finally shut down your vital organs.

That is most likely what some of the estimated 30 guests and staff who were in the Hotel Rigopiano felt when it was buried by an earthquake-induced avalanche. But by Thursday night, nearly 24 hours after the avalanche struck in the central Italian region of Abruzzo, no one still knows with any certainty if there are survivors but the two men who were found in a car outside the structure, or, more importantly, if they could have saved anyone had rescuers been able to reach the area. Just two bodies have been pulled out so far.

The Hotel Rigopiano was a special place. Trip Advisor users gave it four stars for its “relaxing isolation” and “mind blowing mountain spa experience.” But in mid-January, the Rigopiano wasn’t at full capacity, and those who were there weren’t the usual Trip Advisor clients. It is off-season, after the holidays and before the traditional February ski week vacations, so the guests were local people from Abruzzo who enjoy long weekends at discount between-season prices.

More than 40 relatives of victims of those trapped in the still-buried hotel, almost all from towns within a 100-mile radius, have been ushered to a waiting room in the local hospital in Penne, the largest village in close range. There they await word of anyone pulled alive from the buried hotel.

Some of those trapped inside the hotel were there because their homes were destroyed in earthquakes that struck the region in October. Others whose homes were destroyed in earthquakes here in August were on a weeklong holiday before getting back to work rebuilding their homes, according to the Italian newswire ANSA.

Italy’s civil protection agency says it has about 1,000 men and women with snowmobiles, sniffer dogs, and heat-sensing equipment on site. But because the narrow mountain roads are under more than six feet of snow and blocked by fallen trees from the avalanche, rescuers have struggled to get heavy equipment up to the area to try to move the roof of the hotel from its collapsed walls to look for survivors.

It took more than 12 hours for the initial first responders to reach the hotel after the avalanche struck, and they had to ski to an area four miles away and then carry their skis over broken trees and other debris to reach the hotel. Other responders were dropped in by helicopter with cadaver dogs, which haven’t been able to pick up any scents so far due to the cold.

Instead, as they wait for heavy equipment to arrive, rescuers have spent hours yelling into the ruined structure, hoping to hear something—anything—from inside. “It’s deathly silent,” one Alpine rescue worker told The Daily Beast in Penne at the command center for the civil protection authorities after he came down from a search shift. Because of blinding snow and subzero temperatures, the rescuers are working abbreviated shifts to avoid frostbite and other cold-related ailments. “I cannot imagine how cold it is for those inside.”

As the hours wear on, family members and rescuers alike wait and hope against hope that the subzero temperatures aren’t killing any survivors who may have lived through the avalanche. “I hope we have a survival story out of this,” a rescue worker said as he sipped hot tea before going back up the mountain. “I want to think they are in there, huddled up like a movie scene.” Sadly, as the hours wear on, it seems unlikely this horrific event will have a happy ending.