January 23, 2017 / 2:38 PM / 3 years ago

Body of seventh victim found in Italy hotel avalanche, court opens probe

PENNE, Italy (Reuters) - The body of a seventh victim was found in the buried ruins of a mountain hotel in central Italy on Monday as questions multiplied over the official response to last week’s blizzards and deadly avalanche.

Eleven people survived the Jan. 18 disaster in the Gran Sasso national park, including four children who were extracted from under tonnes of snow and debris on Friday.

The woman’s body was recovered on Monday afternoon, bringing the confirmed death toll to seven and the number missing to around 22. Rescuers were still working to extract a body located on Sunday, the national fire brigade said.

Melting snow revealed overturned cars, and one rescuer squeezed through a tiny hole cut in the concrete roof of the Hotel Rigopiano in search of any survivors, video footage showed.

“We are working on the theory that the avalanche did not necessarily hit or destroy every room and that we haven’t yet reached the heart of the structure,” fire brigade spokesman Luca Cari said.

Rescuers broke into smiles when they plucked three seven week-old white puppies from the ravaged hotel’s boiler room.

The government has promised to review its emergency response apparatus in the wake of the disaster, and a court in nearby Pescara has opened an investigation.

A still image taken from a video shows a child rescued from the Hotel Rigopiano carried by rescue workers as she arrives by helicopter in the city of Pescara, central Italy January 20, 2017. REUTERS/via Reuters TV REUTERS/via Reuters TV

Italian media published an email sent by the hotel manager on Jan. 18 to an array of local authorities, urging help to clear the roads so guests could escape after powerful earthquakes rattled the region.

“The clients have been terrorized by the tremors,” said the email. However, no help came before the avalanche struck, with local authorities saying that their most powerful snowplough had broken down and they did not have the money to repair it.

Staff operating emergency hotlines did not take seriously early telephone calls reporting the disaster, Quintino Marcella, a local restaurant owner, told local media.

“The operator did not believe me,” said Marcella, who had called for help after one of his employees telephoned from the demolished hotel.

Italian media said the hotel’s owner told emergency services he knew nothing about the avalanche, but the operators were apparently unaware that he was not actually there at the time.

As a result, the rescue operation only got into gear some 2-1/2 hours later, with the first rescue team arriving by ski 11 hours after the catastrophe because the roads were impassable.

Pescara prosecutor Cristina Tedeschini said there probably had been misunderstandings, delays and glitches in communication, but played down their significance.

Slideshow (8 Images)

“If the exchange of information had started 10 days later it would have been very relevant,” she told a news conference.

Waiting nervously at a hospital in Pescara, the father of one man who was in the hotel accused authorities of wrongly telling him his son had been rescued along with his girlfriend.

Alessio Feniello said his son’s girlfriend had been pulled to safety and had told her rescuers that Stefano Feniello, 28, was still inside. “If there was a thread of hope to rescue (my son), there isn’t any hope anymore,” he told reporters.

Additional reporting by Roberto Mignucci and Carmelo Camilli in Pescara; writing by Isla Binnie; editing by Crispian Balmer and Mark Heinrich

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