Rescue workers on skis reached a four-star spa hotel buried by an avalanche in earthquake-stricken central Italy Thursday, reporting no signs of life as they searched for around 30 people believed trapped inside.
Three bodies were recovered as heavy vehicles struggled to get to the scene.
Two people escaped the devastation at the Hotel Rigopiano, in the Gran Sasso range, in quake-hit central Italy. They called for help, but it took hours to convince authorities something was wrong and for responders to arrive to the remote zone.
Days of heavy snowfall had knocked out electricity and phone lines in many central Italian towns and hamlets, compounded by four powerful earthquakes that struck the region on Wednesday.
It wasn't immediately clear if the quakes triggered the avalanche. But firefighters said the sheer violence of the snow slide uprooted trees and wiped out parts of the hotel, leaving only some structures standing and others down the mountainside.
"There are mattresses that are hundreds of metres away from where the building was," Luca Cari, firefighters' spokesman, told the ANSA news agency.
ANSA also quoted a survivor as saying that he was saved because he had gone outside to his car to get some medicine for his wife when the avalanche hit.
The survivor, identified as 38-year-old Giampaolo Parete, a chef holidaying at the hotel, told doctors that his wife and two children were buried in the avalanche.
He called his boss when the avalanche struck and begged for him to mobilise rescue crews. His wife Adriana and children, Ludovica and Gianfilippo, were trapped inside, employer Quintino Marcella told the Associated Press.
"He said the hotel was submerged and to call rescue crews," Marcella said, adding that he phoned police and the Pescara prefect's office, but no one believed him. "The prefect's office said it wasn't true, because everything was okay at the hotel."
Marcella said he insisted, and called other emergency numbers until someone finally took him seriously and mobilised a rescue, starting at 8pm, more than two hours later.
When rescuers on skis arrived at the hotel about 4am local time, they found just two people alive: Parete and Fabio Salzetta, identified by Italian media as a maintenance worker at the hotel. There were no other signs of life. Rescue crews, using rescue dogs, yelled out but heard no replies.
Video shot by teams entering the still-standing parts of the hotel showed huge piles of filthy snow and debris piled up in the corridors, stairwells and the indoor pool area, having slammed through the outer walls of the building. The audio is silent except for the steps of the cameraman. The largest wall of snow shown was in the pool area, where plastic lounge chairs were flipped on their sides and Christmas decorations still dangled from the ceiling.
The bar area appeared flooded, with nearby cracked skylights covered by snow outside.
Aerial video shot by helicopter crews showed rescue workers on top of the snow-covered hotel, digging holes to try to get in.
Video footage showed rescuers with shovels digging through a wall of snow, and at least one man being led through the cleared path.
An ambulance was blocked several kilometres from the hotel, according to SKY, which also said that snowfall was so heavy that snow plows have had trouble clearing the road to the hotel.
On its website, Italian news agency ANSA quoted the head of a rescue squad that reached the hotel as saying "there are many dead".
Premier Paolo Gentiloni, arriving at the civil protection headquarters in the area at midday Thursday, sought to deflect criticism of the rescue efforts and urged authorities to redouble efforts to reach people isolated by the quakes and snow, which had dumped as much as 3m in some places.
The mountainous region of central Italy has been struck by a series of quakes since August that destroyed historic centres in dozens of towns and hamlets.
A deadly quake in August killed nearly 300, but no one died in the strong aftershocks in October largely because population centres had already been evacuated.
In the meantime, the entire region has been hit by cold weather and buffeted by snowstorms, piling more suffering on to the hard-hit population.
Residents have been complaining for days that they have been without electricity and phone service and have been house-bound because of what Gentiloni called a "record snowfall".
People left homeless by the earlier quakes had been moved to hotels in the region, but it wasn't immediately clear who was staying at Hotel Rigopiano, in the Gran Sasso National Park.
The hotel posted on its Facebook page Wednesday morning after the first quake that its telephone lines were out.
In the hours since the report of the avalanche, users have been posting messages seeking information about the hotel.