PENNE, Italy – Premier Paolo Gentiloni acknowledged delays and "malfunctioning" in Italy's response to the avalanche that buried a mountain hotel, as the death toll climbed Wednesday to 24 and rescue workers all but ruled out finding any of the five people still missing alive.
In a briefing to parliament, Gentiloni stressed the unprecedented perfect storm that unfolded last week as more than two meters (six feet) of snow fell within 72 hours on the isolated Hotel Rigopiano, followed by four powerful earthquakes that shook all of central Italy.
The ensuing landslide and avalanche dumped upwards of 60,000 tons of snow, rocks and uprooted trees on top of the resort, burying the 40 people inside. Nine were pulled out alive, including all four children. Two people escaped and called for help, but the Pescara prefect's office brushed off the alarm thinking it was a joke and that the hotel was safe.
The rescue operation only got underway an hour or two later, and it took some eight hours for the first crews to reach the site, on foot, because the roads were impassable.
Gentiloni told lawmakers a criminal investigation under way would ascertain responsibilities.
"There were delays, or malfunctionings in specific points of this system," he said. "Investigations will clarify this point. The government certainly doesn't fear the truth."
But he stressed that the search for the truth "serves to do better, not to poison the well."
He said it was wrong to find scapegoats now, especially since the emergency is still unfolding and the Abruzzo region is still coping with the fallout of the snow and earthquakes that left thousands of people without power for over a week.
Avalanche recovery crews reported the toll from the Jan. 18 disaster stood at 24 dead, with five people unaccounted for under the tons of snow and rubble. The body count has more than tripled since rescue crews reached the center communal areas of the hotel on Tuesday.
"We cannot lose hope completely yet but it is really reduced to a minimum," firefighter spokesman Luca Cari said Wednesday.