The death toll in Italy’s avalanche disaster rose to 14 Tuesday as rescuers extracted the bodies of two women from a devastated hotel and continued their search for 15 people still missing, local authorities said.
Six other bodies were found between Monday afternoon and the early hours of Tuesday, the sixth day of what increasingly appears to be a forlorn search through the snow-covered wreckage of the Hotel Rigopiano.
Eleven staff and guests survived the disaster, two men who were outside when the avalanche struck on January 18 and nine people, including four children, who were found on Friday morning.
Rescuers have refused to give up hope of finding more people alive with morale amongst the exhausted firefighters and mountain police having been boosted on Monday when three live puppies were retrieved from under the rubble.
Italian authorities are meanwhile investigating the chain of events leading to the avalanche to see if the tragedy could or should have been avoided.
A preliminary manslaughter investigation has been opened with the prosecutor in charge looking into whether environmental risks were properly taken into account during the construction and subsequent renovation of the hotel.
Events on the day of the disaster itself, when guests were unable to leave because of snow-blocked access roads, are also in the spotlight.
– Tunnelling into wreckage –
The local council had only one functioning road-clearance vehicle and had deployed it to reach isolated hamlets with elderly residents rather than clearing the road to the hotel.
A second snow plough had broken down earlier in the month and staff were awaiting authorisation to get a 25,000-euro ($26,845) repair done.
The hotel, a four-star spa facility where George Clooney once stayed, was built into a hillside at 1,200 metres altitude on the eastern slopes of Monte Gran Sasso, a near 3,000-metre peak that dominates Central Italy.
The survivors pulled from the ruins described spending between 42 and 60 hours trapped in the darkness and freezing cold of the wreckage, eating snow to stave off thirst.
They were all treated for mild hypothermia, suggesting anyone still alive more than three days later will have had to have found some way of keeping warm.
Rescuers have not ruled that out because they believe some rooms they are trying to reach by tunnelling through thick stone walls may be almost intact.
New routes have been dug into the rubble but progress remained painfully slow with the first responders often digging with their bare hands because of fears of masonry or snow slides.
The avalanche followed exceptionally heavy snowfalls in the mountains of central Italy and occurred three hours after the last of four powerful earthquakes which shook the region on Wednesday.
Police have calculated the force of the impact on the three-storey stone and wood structure as being equivalent to it being as being hit by 4,000 fully-loaded trucks hurtling down the mountainside.
A large section of the building was moved over ten metres (30 feet) off its foundations.
Funerals for two of the victims were to take place Tuesday. Among the dead who have been identified were the parents of one of the boys who survived. Another couple whose son survived were among those unaccounted for.
The parents of the two other child survivors, a brother and sister, both survived. All of the survivors are being supported by trauma experts.