As the painstaking rescue operation entered a fourth day, firefighters and mountain rescue experts again had to battle extreme weather conditions as they tried to locate the 23 people thought to be trapped under a vast pile of snow and the mangled ruins of the Hotel Rigopiano.
Nine people have been pulled alive from the rubble since rescuers first reached the remote hotel in the mountains of central Italy early on Thursday. All of them were located on Friday and no other potential survivors have
been identified since then.
But with scores of them working round the clock, the rescuers were refusing to give up hope that more people could still be clinging to life somewhere under the wreckage.
Five bodies have been recovered so far and there were two other survivors who were outside the hotel when the avalanche struck at nightfall on Wednesday. It followed a series of powerful earthquakes in the region earlier in the day and some 36 hours of heavy snow.
Rescuers pulled four people alive from an avalanche-hit Italian hotel on Saturday, and on Friday teams of mountain rescuers rescued of all four children who were inside the Hotel Rigopiano, along with the mother of two of them.
Enrica Centi, a spokeswoman for the mountain rescue teams involved in the operation, said on Saturday that heavy snow and poor visibility which grounded helicopters was hampering the effort.
“Those on site say they have heard signs of possible life but it may just have been bits of rubble collapsing, it's impossible to tell,” she said.
Returning from an exhausting shift at the hotel, mountain rescuer Alessandro Massa, 34, was defiantly upbeat.
“I haven't slept for three days, but we're keeping positive, we are going to get the people home,” he said. “We've been shifting snow and rubble by hand, working mainly in the areas where the survivors rescued so far have been found.
“We're using electric saws to cut through the wreckage but it's dangerous so progress is slow. There are still puffs of vapour from parts of the wreckage, so there are still air pockets, and that makes us think there's still hope. Those still trapped underneath could easily still be alive.”
Among the missing was hotel kitchen staffer Luana Biferi. “Our hope is that she may have been in the kitchen when the avalanche hit because it has a thick external wall which may have protected her,” her neighbour Antonio Lobolo, 42, told AFP.
“Our whole village is waiting anxiously for news.”
Teams of firefighters and police are combing a debris-strewn area bigger than several football pitches as a result of the devastating force of the avalanche, which dragged the three-storey hotel some 10 metres (30 feet) from its foundations.
They were using scanning equipment to try to pick up signs of mobile phones amid an ever-present risk of further masonry collapses or fresh snow slides.
Among the survivors were two men who were outside the hotel when the avalanche struck just before nightfall on Wednesday. Five bodies had been recovered by dusk on Saturday.
In a first official update on the numbers at the hotel when the avalanche hit, the prefecture in the nearest city, Pescara, said 23 people remained unaccounted for.
The children likely survived because they were in or around a games room which did not cave in. Two of them faced losing both their parents. The mother of Edoardo Di Carlo, 9, was confirmed late Saturday as one of the five people to have died. His father was among the missing, along with the parents of Samuel Di Michelangelo, 7.
“They are physically fine, they suffered only mild hypothermia but psychologically they have been through an ordeal,” said Tullio Spino, a doctor at the Pescar hospital where the boys were recovering.
The other two children were from the same family of four, all of whom survived.
The avalanche followed four earthquakes of more than five magnitude in the space of four hours earlier on Wednesday. The death toll from the quake, not including the avalanche victims, rose to five on Saturday.
Some 33,000 homes were still without power and more than 8,000 troops and emergency services were deployed in the relief effort.
Around 120 residents of Valle Castellane were being helicoptered out of their snow-bound village.