Avalanche survivors: sipping tea, then world crashed down

FARINDOLA, Italy (AP) " Some of the lucky ones were sipping hot tea near the fireplace in their mountain resort hotel, waiting for snowplows to arrive so they could finally go home, after a winter holiday made nerve-wracking by a day of ground-shaking earthquakes and heavy snowfall.

Suddenly, Vincenzo Forti and girlfriend Giorgia Galassi were knocked violently off a wicker sofa. A few other guests nearby tumbled off their chairs in the elegant yet rustic reception hall.

An avalanche of snow " and not a tremendously powerful earthquake as survivors first imagined " had just barreled down the mountainside Wednesday evening, smashing into the Hotel Rigopiano and trapping more than 30 holiday-makers, including four children, and workers inside.

On Sunday evening, rescuers spotted a man's body in the wreckage, raising to six the number of confirmed dead. Twenty-three others remained missing, with hopes dependent on whether anyone might have found survival in some air pocket searchers hadn't yet reached.

While the nine people who were eventually rescued, including all the children, remained hospitalized Sunday, some details of their harrowing survival accounts began emerging, through family, friends and rescuers who spoke with them at their bedside or by telephone.

Among the details: the seemingly endless isolation, since the snow absorbed any sound from the outside world.

"There were four of us, in front of the fireplace, drinking tea," Galassi recalled.

Suddenly, "everything collapsed on top of us, and I didn't understand anything anymore," Galassi, a 22-year-old university student, told Radio Giulianova, a radio station her hometown of the Adriatic coastal town of Giulianova, where Forti, 25, owns a seaside pizzeria.

Cut off from the outside world, the couple heard no sound. But "we were convinced that someone would come, because it was impossible they wouldn't be aware of us," Galassi said. "We banged until I couldn't anymore, we yelled."

"It was like we were in a tin can," she said.

There was no food, but there was ice, from the avalanche.

"We ate ice, that was our fortune," Galassi said.

Forti's fishing buddy, Luigi Valiante, added more details, telling reporters after visiting him in a hospital Sunday that the young man "realizes he is a miraculous survivor. Also considering where he was " a square meter (3 foot by 3 foot) (space) in the cold, without lights, with a broken sofa, a girder splitting it up."

Until their cellphone batteries ran out, the survivors had some light. Then it was just dark, Valiante said.

Another survivor was near the couple. Francesca Bronzi was trying to find where her boyfriend, Stefano Feniello, ended up.

Bronzi's parents, Vanessa and Gaetano Bronzi, said that the chair's high backrest saved her, protecting her from a beam that "could have crushed her."

Bronzi continues to ask about her boyfriend, who remains among the missing. "They have made life plans," said Gaetano Bronzi.

Near the couples, Galassi told the radio station, was a Rome-area man, Giampaolo Matrone, whose arm was crushed by a beam. His wife, who Matrone said was nearby, remains unaccounted for.

Galassi told the local radio that she risked losing hope by what she calculated was the second day in their claustrophobic pitch-black.

But Forti "was the strength of the whole group," his girlfriend remembered.

Corriere della Sera reported that Forti would hum tunes when he sensed his comrades' morale was sagging.

Galassi said they heard the first sounds from rescuers around 40 hours after the avalanche, about 11 a.m. on Friday.

But it would be 4 a.m. Saturday, before rescuers, who carved out a series of vertical and horizontal tunnels into the icy several-meter thick mantle of snow to reach survivors, carried Galassi outside to safety " after first rescuing a mother and son, and then three other children.

"Surely it was a miracle, not" luck, she told the radio interviewer.

Her mother, Isa Toccotelli, told The Associated Press, that her daughter held a rosary in her hand and never lost hope throughout the ordeal.

"It is a miracle. There are miracles. They have experienced one," Galassi's mother said.

With air pockets detected in other areas of the wreckage, rescuers were holding out hope for more miracles even four days after the tragedy.

Impassable mountain roads have left crews without equipment like cranes that could help them remove the piles of ice and snow more quickly. Around 60 people at a time have been using shovels and their hands to dig, passing out bucket-brigade style chunks of ice snow they dug out.

The massiveness of the avalanche has become more apparent as experts studied the area.

Lt. Col. Vincenzo Romeo, of the Carabinieri paramilitary police's mountain weather unit, said the equivalent of the weight of "3,500 big-rigged trucks, fully loaded" had smashed into the hotel after days of heavy snowfall.

The avalanche weighed an estimated 40,000-60,000 tons when it first crushed the hotel, Romeo said. In the days since, the snow has become heavier as it has gotten icier, and now weighs an estimated 120,000 tons, he said.

The snow mass which broke off the mountainside barreled down a slope with a 35-degree angle and traveled about two kilometers (a mile) on its route straight into the resort, Romeo said.

Several powerful earthquakes had rocked the central Apennines area only hours before the avalanche. But Romeo said experts say the snow slide was triggered "not so much by earthquake, but by the accumulation of snow combined with strong winds, which created drifts."

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Pietro DeCristofaro and Colleen Barry reported from Pescara. Frances D'Emilio reported from Rome.

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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