Search Resumes at Collapsed Skating Rink

With hopes fading, rescuers with dogs resumed the search early Wednesday for four people still missing after the roof of a skating rink in southern Germany collapsed, authorities said.

Crews were able to enter the building in the Alpine spa town of Bad Reichenhall a little before 4 a.m., the local council said in a statement. They had been forced to suspend their work Tuesday afternoon because of fears that the wrecked structure could collapse further.

With two loud cracks, the roof caved in Monday after a heavy snowfall with about 50 people inside, including many children. Eleven people were confirmed dead, including six children, and police said four more — a 40-year-old woman and two boys and a girl — were still under the rubble in the Alpine spa town of Bad Reichenhall.

Hopes were dwindling in finding survivors as the rescue effort continued through its second night of snow and freezing temperatures.

On Tuesday, one of the collapsed ceiling crossbeams shifted and put pressure on a remaining wall, leading to fears that the ruined and steeply tilted roof could collapse further — and forcing the rescue effort to a halt.

Special cranes were brought in, spending Tuesday night and early Wednesday tearing away pieces of the facade and the remains of the roof. When they had cleared enough debris to make two-fifths of the skating rink accessible, the rescuers re-entered.

Officials would not predict when the missing people might be recovered.

However, fire official Rudi Zeif pledged Tuesday that "we will continue the search until we have rescued or recovered all the missing."

Searchers were "80 percent sure" of the location of one missing person, he said. Asked if they could still be alive, he said earthquake victims had survived for several days.

Pumping warm air into the area was considered, but ruled out because it could melt snow, leaving any survivors wet and colder than before. Rescuers hoped the snow could produce an "igloo effect" that might create relatively warm pockets of air.

Rescuers using dogs, shovels and their hands found a 5-year-old girl with only minor injuries late Monday, but had found no one alive and heard no calls for help since then.

Several hundred people gathered Tuesday for a candlelight vigil at town hall, and church bells pealed for 20 minutes.

Eighteen people were seriously injured in the collapse, which occurred Monday at 4 p.m. just as the rink was about to close for the day. A memorial service was planned for next week.

Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday expressed her "deep sympathy" for the victims, praising the efforts of rescuers who were in "a race against time" to find survivors.

Prosecutors launched an investigation into possible negligence, an automatic step after a fatal accident.

All the victims came from Bad Reichenhall, a town of 15,000 near the border with Austria, or the surrounding area, and residents asked angry questions about why a public building could not withstand a heavy but predictable snowfall. Experts suggested a structural flaw was a more likely cause than the weight of the snow.

"There's something rotten about this. We've had a lot more snow than this before," retiree Erna Schweiger-Nolte said as she stood outside the police cordon. "The politicians say, 'save, save, save,' but it shouldn't be on the wrong things."

She said it was "well known" that the building, erected in 1972, was in poor shape and leaking.

Suspicions were fueled by news that an official with the town's ice hockey club said he had been told by town authorities 30 minutes before the collapse that a regular practice session for youth players later in the day was canceled because there was a risk of the facility collapsing.

Local officials said there had been a roughly 8-inch layer of snow on the roof, which Mayor Wolfgang Heitmeier said was well within the building's margin of safety. Nonetheless, town officials had planned to close it after the end of the day's free skate because the heavy wet snow was continuing.

Heitmeier said renovations had been discussed, but to the pool and rink equipment, not the structure itself, which was regarded as sound.

Several structural engineers expressed doubt that snow alone was the cause, and said such buildings should be inspected as they age, just as bridges are.

"No one would get on an airplane that wasn't regularly maintained and checked," engineer Carsten Koenke said. And Horst Franke, another engineer, said on N24 television that "it couldn't just have been the snow."

German meteorologists measured nearly 1 1/2 feet of fresh, wet snow Monday in the Bavarian Alps, where Bad Reichenhall is located.