ROME -- The final death toll of an avalanche that hit a hotel in central Italy last week rose to 29 people, Italian authorities confirmed on Thursday.
The last two bodies were pulled from the ruins of the Rigopiano hotel in the Abruzzo region between Wednesday night and Thursday morning, according to the national fire department.
Frantic efforts to dig and find survivors lasted one week and involved an average of 200 officers from Italy's various emergency departments.
Forty people overall -- 28 guests including four children, and 12 employees -- were inside the ski resort when a huge avalanche crushed it in the late afternoon of Jan. 18. Eleven of them survived, nine of which were pulled out alive from under about four meters of snow, mud, and rubble. All four children were rescued.
The remainder lost their lives in the disaster, and the 29 bodies have gradually been recovered from the wreckage day by day. Many of them were found between the hall and the area where the hotel bar had been, according to Italian news agency Ansa.
Adverse weather conditions hampered rescue efforts from the beginning. The broader region where the incident took place -- the province of L'Aquila -- had already been hit with heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures. Then, a series of earthquakes followed.
In fact, the avalanche was believed to have been triggered by four strong temblors that struck there earlier on Jan. 18. Authorities acknowledged that the combined emergencies put the country's rescue system under stress.
"The scenario in which this operation took place has been particularly difficult, both from a technical and an emotional point of view," Renato Curcio, chief of the Civil Protection Department coordinating rescue efforts, told a press conference on Thursday.
"We rejoiced when the 11 people were rescued, and grieved for the reckoning of the 29 victims," he added.
First rescuers reached the hotel by walking and skiing in the night of Jan. 18, because all road access had been cut off, and emergency vehicles had to stop some 8 km away due to the snow.
A few funerals have been already held. Autopsies on the first six bodies showed that most of them died from various physical trauma due to the collapse of the hotel.
Yet, some of them also bore signs of hypothermia and asphyxiation, which might suggest they died because they were not reached by rescuers in time.
It was estimated the avalanche crushed the hotel with the power of some 4,000 full-loaded trucks, burying it in more than 50,000 tons of snow, rocks, and uprooted vegetation.
Most people had gathered at the ground floor of the Rigopiano, and were waiting to be evacuated due to the heavy snow and recent quakes, when the avalanche hit.
Prosecutors in Pescara have launched a manslaughter investigation, and are to verify whether the risks for those in the hotel had been properly taken into consideration by emergency authorities.
Source: Philippines News Agency