Rescuers have vowed to keep looking for survivors of a devastating avalanche that buried an Italian mountain hotel, as they begin a second day of searching.
At least 25 people, including several children, were feared dead after a barrage of snow hit the Hotel Rigopiano on Wednesday afternoon, ripping the three-storey building from its foundations and moving it ten metres (11 yards).
AS IT HAPPENED: Three bodies found, many more feared dead at avalanche-hit hotel
Rescue work continued into Thursday night but the prospects of anyone being rescued alive looked bleak, with search efforts hampered by heavy snow that blocked access roads to the remote site until the early hours of the morning after the avalanche hit.
“We're holding on to hope that there are survivors inside,” Deputy Interior Minister Filippo Bubbico told reporters Thursday in the town of Penne, where a camp for rescue workers has been set up.
“Firefighters and alpine rescuers are working tirelessly and now the army is doing everything to improve access to the route,” he said.
Special army mountain rescue teams were seen riding in vehicles with caterpillar tracks.
An aerial view of the hotel. Photo: Vigili del Fuoco
“A small avalanche has created a wall of snow across the path to the hotel, we are heading up there now to knock it down,” said army Major Nicola Cappozolo.
“As long as there is hope of finding survivors we'll be there.”
Two bodies have been extracted from the rubble and two survivors suffering from hypothermia taken to hospital.
Italian broadcasters showed images of piles of masonry and rubble in the entrance area of what they dubbed a “coffin hotel”.
Wife and children missing
The region was hit by four seismic shocks measuring above five magnitude in the space of four hours on Wednesday. Quake experts said the tremors almost certainly triggered the snowslide.
The hotel's guests had been assembled on the ground floor awaiting an evacuation following the quakes that was delayed by snow-blocked roads when the avalanche struck.
Local officials confirmed two guests who were not inside when the avalanche hit had been rescued.
Rescuers remove snow from the road. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP
One of them, identified as Giampiero Parete, 38, was quoted by friends in Italian media as saying his wife and two children, a girl aged six and a boy aged eight, had been inside the hotel.
Officials said there had been between 20 and 22 guests staying and seven or eight staff on duty at the hotel on the eastern lower slopes of the Gran Sasso mountain. It was unclear if there were any additional people in the hotel.
Fears for some local families
The hotel, a four-star establishment with its own spa and indoor pool, was located at an altitude of 1,200 metres (3,900 feet) around 90 kilometres (55 miles) east of the epicentres of Wednesday's earthquakes. They were also centred near Amatrice, the town devastated in an August quake in which nearly 300 people died.
The quakes affected an area that straddles the regions of Lazio, Marche and Abruzzo, home to many remote mountain hamlets.
The main road in Montereale, at the centre of Wednesday's tremors. Photo: AFP
Although many residents were evacuated from their homes after last year's quakes, there were fears for families who decided to stay and are now cut off.
Schools in the affected region have been closed until next week to allow structural safety checks to be carried out.
Italy straddles the Eurasian and African tectonic plates, making it vulnerable to seismic activity when they move.
Since the Amatrice disaster, there have been nine shocks measuring more than a five magnitude and a total of 47,000 registered aftershocks.
By Angus MacKinnon and Ella Ide