Amidst relief that anyone at all had survived, there was confusion over the exact numbers located and extracted amid conflicting updates from different branches of the emergency services.
AS IT HAPPENED: Six rescued, hope for more survivors in Italy avalanche rubble
But there were hopes that a total of 11 people would have been removed from the rubble by nightfall, leaving at least another 14 to account for.
A group of six people were found in an air pocket on Friday morning but only two of them, a mother and her young son, had been extracted by mid-afternoon, contrary to earlier briefings from rescuers.
Rescuers set off for the hotel. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
Roberto Carminucci, one of the coordinators of the rescue operation, said contact had been made with another group, reported by Italian media to count five survivors.
“We are in contact and we hope to find survivors but we don't know how many voices we are hearing or the state (of health) of those trapped so we cannot give any firm numbers yet,” he said.
By late afternoon any survivors would have spent a full two days under the snow-covered rubble of the Hotel Rigopiano, a three-storey spa hotel on the eastern lower slopes of Monte Gran Sasso, the highest peak in central Italy.
'Like they'd been reborn'
Marco Bini, one of the officers who reached the first group of six survivors, said the rescue team had been alerted to their possible location when they detected smoke.
He said six people had been found together in an air pocket, including the mother and child, who were later shown emerging from a vertical tunnel in the snow.
“They were all in reasonable health, if very cold. The fire will have been using up the oxygen so we were lucky to find them.
“Their faces said it all, it was like they had been reborn.”
A video released by firefighters, below, showed the boy, thought to be seven, emerging into the air to cheers from firemen who mussed his hair.
— Vigili del Fuoco (@emergenzavvf) January 20, 2017
Bini said the rescue had raised hopes others would be found in similar air pockets.
“The snow will have prevented anyone inside from getting too cold, it insulates like an igloo,” he said.
More than 25 people, including several children, were thought to have been in the hotel when it was hit by a massive wall of snow.
Revised estimates on Friday suggested the total could have been as high as 34. Two bodies were recovered when rescuers first reached the site.
Most of the guests were waiting to leave when the avalanche struck late on Wednesday afternoon.The had decided to leave after earthquakes in the region earlier in the day but the heavy snow blocked roads and delayed their transport.
Scores of mountain police, firefighters and other emergency personnel were deployed at the hotel.
Progress was agonizingly slow, with rescuers wary of triggering further movements in the snow piled up on top of the masonry.
Lorenzo Gagliardi, one of the first mountain police officers to arrive on Thursday morning, had earlier described what he found to AFPTV.
Gagliardi and his colleagues had trekked for more than eight kilometres (nearly five miles) through two-metre-high snow to reach the hotel around 4:00 am on Thursday.
There they found a car with its engine running with survivors Giampiero Parete and Fabio Salzetta inside. Parete, a 38-year-old chef, told the rescuers that his wife, son and daughter were in the hotel.
“We were ready to leave at 2:00 pm. We were in the foyer with our bags, we'd paid the bill and were waiting for a snowplough to clear the road,” he told reporters after treatment for hypothermia.
An aerial view of the snow-covered hotel. Photo: Vigili del Fuoco
“My wife told me she had a headache so I went to the car to get some pills for her.
“As soon as I got out I felt this wind and then this deafening noise of trees cracking, trunks cascading down the hillside.
“Then the hotel collapsed under this enormous wave of snow and half the mountain. My car was the only thing that escaped, by a few centimetres.”
The national civil protection agency confirmed two more deaths as a result of the quake, taking the total to five, including the two at the hotel.
By Ella Ide with Angus MacKinnon