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The Washington Post

ROME — In the darkness under tons of snow, the survivors reached for their only lifeline. From their phones, text messages were punched out to 112, the Italian emergency response number.

“Help,” one couple wrote after their hotel was buried in an earthquake-triggered avalanche, “we’re dying of cold.”

But Thursday, when rescuers finally reached the resort — swallowed by a wall of white that roared down the Gran Sasso mountains in central Italy a day earlier — there was only silence from under the crush of snow, rocks and splintered fir trees.

A handful of survivors waited in what was left of the Hotel Rigopiano. They included a man who was getting something from the family car just when the avalanche hit. His wife and two children, trapped below, were among as many as 30 people listed as missing.

Three bodies were found Thursday, but hopes for the others trapped faded, hour by hour.

“There are so many dead,” Antonio Crocetta of the local alpine rescue workers told the state-run news agency ANSA. “The avalanche was huge.”

It was a disaster whose proportions and aftermath were set by twin blows from nature, in a region still trying to recover from major earthquakes last summer that toppled centuries-old buildings and nearly wiped out some villages.

Crews were “working nonstop through the night” to clear roads and a space in front of the hotel for vehicles and search-and-rescue teams, said Carlo Torlontano, vice prefect of Pescara, about 16 miles to the southeast.

The mountains of the Abruzzo region were battered by huge snowfalls over the past days. Another storm dumped a fresh layer on the slope Wednesday. Then a series of moderate quakes was enough to unleash the deadly snow slide, experts say.

The avalanche blocked the only twisting road to the four-star spa and hotel, built in an alpine glen at nearly 4,000 feet.

Some rescuers used skis; others were dropped by helicopter. The first rescue crews started to dig with shovels. Plows struggled to carve a route along the snow-choked access road to bring in heavy equipment.

Hallways were choked with snow, which also punched into the hotel lobby and buried tall peaked roofs. A frosty mist that had settled over the area slowly began to lift.

“The mist is easing now,” said Pierpaolo Petrucci, a representative in the regional assembly. “And when the mist dissipates, the ugliness appears.”

Among the survivors was Giampaolo Parete, 38, who told rescuers he had gone to his car when the avalanche hit. His wife and two children were buried inside, ANSA reported.

“I saved myself because I’d gone to pick something up from the car,” he said. “The avalanche came and I was buried by snow, but I managed to get out. The car was not buried, so I stayed there and waited for rescue operators.”

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