Italian emergency crews pulled three wiggling, white sheepdog puppies out Monday from under tons of snow and rubble at an avalanche-struck hotel, lifting spirits even as the search for 20 people still missing dragged on five days after the disaster.
Three more bodies were located, raising the death toll to nine, and the first survivors of the deadly avalanche were released from the hospital. Questions intensified, however, into whether Italian authorities underestimated the risks facing the snowbound resort in the hours before the deadly avalanche.
Five days after some 60,000 tons of snow, rocks and uprooted trees plowed into the Hotel Rigopiano in central Italy, rescue crews were still digging by hand or with shovels and chainsaws in hopes of finding more survivors. An excavator reached the site, northeast of Rome, to speed up the search.
The discovery of the three Abruzzo sheepdog puppies in the boiler room raised spirits, even as rescuers located a ninth body.
Jubilant emergency crews carried the pups out in their arms, with one firefighter burying his face in the fluffy white fur to give the dog a kiss. The puppies were born last month to the hotel's resident sheepdogs, Nuvola and Lupo, and were prominently featured on the hotel's Facebook page. Their parents had found their own way out after the Wednesday afternoon avalanche.
"They just started barking very softly," said Sonia Marini, a member of the Forestry Corps. "In fact, it was hard to find them right away because they were hidden. Then we heard this very tiny bark and we saw them from a little hole the firefighters had opened in the wall. Then we expanded the hole and we pulled them out."
Firefighter spokesman Luca Cari, however, stressed that the puppies were found in an isolated part of the hotel and didn't necessarily signal any new hope for finding human survivors.
"We're happy to have saved them, and these are important moments in a dramatic situation," he said. "But I don't think there's much correlation with finding other people."
Emergency crews have been hoping that the 20 missing people may have found air pockets under the debris, and that the snow would insulate them from the frigid temperatures. But some three days have passed since anyone has been pulled out alive from the hotel, and conditions at the site were deteriorating, with the heavy snow turning to ice.
Nine people have been rescued from the Hotel Rigopiano. The first survivors released Monday from a hospital in the nearby city of Pescara included Giorgia Galassi and her boyfriend, Vincenzo Forti.
"Thank you, thank you everyone!" Galassi said as she waved from the front door of her parents' home in Giulianova, on the Adriatic coast. Flanked by her parents, she said she felt fine.
Hotel guests Giampiero Parete, his wife and two children were also home. It was Parete who had first sounded the alarm after he by chance left the hotel to go to his car moments before the avalanche hit.
Still hospitalized were one adult and two youngsters, Samuel Di Michelangelo and Edoardo Di Carlo. Officials have confirmed that Edoardo's parents were killed, while Samuel's are still unaccounted for.
"Edoardo has an adult brother, so the brother will be given custody of him," Pescara hospital medical director Dr. Rossano Di Luzio told reporters. "Samuel has his close relatives, grandparents at the moment, but we hope we can give him back to his parents."
Firefighter spokesman Cari said emergency crews were working with an "operational hypothesis" that people might still be alive, but he stressed "we are fighting against time."
The investigation intensified, meanwhile, into whether local government officials underestimated the threat facing the hotel, which was covered with two meters (six feet) of snow, had no phone service and dwindling gas supplies when a series of earthquakes rocked central Italy on the morning of Jan. 18.
Italian newspapers on Monday reproduced what they said was an email sent by the hotel owner to local and provincial authorities that afternoon asking for help.
"The hotel guests are terrorized by the earthquakes and have decided to stay out in the open," Bruno Di Tommaso wrote. "We've tried to do everything to keep them calm, but since they can't leave due to the blocked roads, they're prepared to spend the night in their cars."
The Pescara prefect's office already has faced criticism after a local restaurant owner said his calls reporting the avalanche were ignored. Quintino Marcella said he called the office after receiving word from Parete, one of his chefs who was vacationing at the hotel.
Chief prosecutor Cristina Tedeschini confirmed her investigation was looking into a host of issues, including the timing and content of communications, where the snowplows were deployed, who was alerted when about the risks of avalanches and how authorities responded when the avalanche hit the hotel. In addition, she said she would look at building construction and whether it should have been even operating under such conditions.
She said there were "incongruities" between when communications were received and when they were acted on.
But she stressed they may not have had a significant effect on the search effort, given that five days had passed and still the search was ongoing. She said "at most" the delay in launching the avalanche response was an hour.
"I don't see it as being highly relevant," she said.
The president of the province, Antonio Di Marco, has confirmed he saw an email from Di Tommaso and had arranged for a snowplow to clear the road that night, the ANSA news agency reported. The avalanche hit sometime before 5:40 p.m., when Marcella received the call from his chef.