An avalanche hit a small hotel in the mountains of central Italy after a series of strong earthquakes had rattled the area, and up to 30 people are feared to have died, officials said on Wednesday.
“Around 30 people are unaccounted for, between guests and workers at the Hotel Rigopiano in Farindola,” Fabrizio Curcio, head of Italy’s civil protection department, told reporters.
Some officials said it was too early to say if anyone might have died.
Italy’s Civil Protection agency confirmed the Hotel Rigopiano had been engulfed by a two-meter (six-feet) high wall of snow and that emergency services were struggling to get ambulances and diggers to the site, joining initial rescue efforts overnight by alpine rescue teams.
Around 30 guests and staff were at the ski hotel on the eastern lower slopes of the Gran Sasso mountain when the first of four powerful tremors hit the region on Wednesday morning, the agency reported.
The avalanche collapsed part of the four-storey hotel, which is some 1,200 meters (4,000 ft) above sea level, and moved it some 10 meters (30 ft) according to media reports.
A wall of snow and debris hit the hotel on Wednesday evening, just hours after four strong earthquakes had shaken central Italy, sparking fears about possible avalanches.
Two men were outside the building at the time of the disaster and raised the alarm.
“I am alive because I went to get something from my car,” one of the two, Giampiero Parete, told medical staff, according to la Repubblica website.
The hotel is about 45 kilometers (30 miles) from the coastal city of Pescara.
Earthquakes hit the region on Wednesday, including one with a 5.7 magnitude.
With blocked roads in the area, the first rescuers arrived at 4.30 a.m. (0330 GMT) after they had skied through a heavy snow storm to reach the site. After dawn broke, emergency services sent in helicopters.
“We’re dropping our rescue units down by helicopter and they are starting to dig,” said Luca Cari, spokesman for the national fire brigades.
A base camp for rescue workers was set up in the town of Penne, some 10 km (6 miles) away from the Rigopiano hotel, which was a popular 4-star spa resort with 43 rooms.
An aerial shot of the hotel released by the fire brigade showed just the last floor and the roof visible above a thick blanket of snow.
Initial television pictures showed that mounds of snow and debris had smashed through a hotel wall into the lobby.