ROME — It has been six days since an avalanche sent 120,000 tons of snow down a mountainside, crashing into the luxury Rigopiano Resort Hotel at 60 miles an hour. On Monday, the discovery of three fluffy white Abruzzo sheepdog puppies that had escaped to the hotel’s boiler room raised hopes that some of the many missing could still be alive under the right conditions.
“The puppies survived in an air pocket by eating snow,” Walter Milan, spokesman for Italy’s elite Alpine rescue squad told The Daily Beast. “If the puppies survived, humans could as well.”
Eleven people are known to have lived through the horrific tragedy, including three children who gorged on Nutella while they waited for more than 40 hours under the snow, using electronic games and cellphones as flashlights to find water. Rescuers say the two boys aged 8 and 9 took turns hugging a younger girl whose mother and brother were on the other side of a thick wall.
On Tuesday afternoon, the bodies of 15 victims had been located, but 14 still remain missing.
It wasn’t like no one saw this coming. When the avalanche hit, hotel guests and staff were gathering in the common area of the building to be evacuated after three strong earthquakes shook the region. Heavy snow conditions had closed the only road down the mountain, so they were waiting for someone to come with a turbine snowplow to open it.
Just hours before the avalanche struck, the Rigopiano Hotel administrator, Bruno Di Tomasso, wrote a distressing note to civil protection authorities pleading for help: “We inform you that because of the recent events, the situation has become worrisome. In the district of Rigopiano there are about two meters of snow and in our property at this time there are 12 occupied rooms (besides the staff). Diesel fuel to power the generator should be enough to last until tomorrow when we hope that the supplier can make delivery,” wrote Di Tomasso.
“The phones are out of service. Clients are terrified by the earthquakes and have decided to stay outdoors. We tried to do everything possible to calm them but, unable to leave because of blocked roads, they are willing to spend the night in their cars. With our shovels we were able to clean the driveway from the gate to the [state road]. Aware of the general difficulties, we ask you to intervene. Therefore please understand, we are waiting for a sign from you acknowledging this request.”
The email was received, and officials say a snowplow was already en route to open the blocked road when the avalanche struck. But it still took first responders nearly 12 hours to actually reach the hotel, which they did by skiing in. And it took almost a full 24 hours more to clear the road enough for emergency vehicles to arrive.
Authorities have opened up a manslaughter investigation into the incident.
Making matters worse, an emergency rescue helicopter crashed in the same region in bad weather on Tuesday, killing all six people on board. The helicopter was not involved in the avalanche rescue mission. Instead its crew were rescuing an isolated skier on the mountainside. It seemed just the latest in a string of tragedies in central Italy started last August with a powerful earthquake that killed nearly 300 people.
Still, when the Nutella children were rescued on Saturday and the puppies on Monday, that brought a surge of hope.
Marco Filabozzi is a rescue worker who witnessed the carnage in all of the major disasters. “We did three earthquakes … we only found dead people,” he told the BBC. “When we broke that wooden panel and saw those three children huddled against each other, we looked at each other and we suddenly understood—those angels erased all the dead for us.”