ROME (AP) – About 17 people remain missing for a day after a huge chunk of an Alpine glacier in northern Italy broke off and slammed into hikers, officials said on Monday.
At least six people died and nine were injured in the avalanche of ice, snow and large rocks that thundered down the slope of the mountain topped by the Marmolada glacier on Sunday afternoon.
Trento prosecutor Sandro Raimondi said 17 hikers were missing, Italian news agency LaPresse reported.
Venetian regional governor Luca Zaia said some of the hikers in the area were tied with ropes while climbing on Sunday.
The nationalities of the known dead were not disclosed and conditions were too dangerous Monday morning for rescue teams with dogs to continue searching for the missing or recover the bodies.
The bodies are being taken to an ice skating rink in the Dolomite resort of Canazei for identification.
Raimondi was quoted as saying that two of the nine injured were Germans. Zaia told reporters that one of the Germans was a 65-year-old man. One of the injured patients in the intensive care unit has yet to be identified.
The patients sustained chest and skull injuries, Zaia said.
Drones have been deployed to search for missing persons and check security.
Sixteen cars remained unclaimed in the area’s parking lot, and authorities attempted to locate the occupants by license plates. It was unclear how many of the cars might have belonged to the victims already identified or the injured, all of whom were flown to hospitals by helicopter on Sunday.
Rescuers said conditions on the slope of the glacier, which has been melting for decades, were still too unstable as of early Monday to send teams of people and dogs back to dig through tons of debris.
Prime Minister Mario Draghi and the head of the national civil protection agency traveled to the affected area for briefings on Monday. .
It was not immediately known what caused a tip of the glacier to break off and thunder down the slope at a speed estimated by experts to be around 300 km/h (almost 200 mph). But the heatwave that has been sweeping Italy since May, bringing unseasonably high temperatures for early summer even in the normally cooler Alps, has been cited as a likely factor.
Jacopo Gabrieli, a polar scientist at Italy’s state CNR research center, noted that the long May-June heatwave was the hottest in northern Italy for that period in almost 20 years.
“This is absolutely an anomaly,” Gabrieli said in an interview on Italian state television on Monday. Like other experts, he said it was impossible to predict when or if a serac – a peak of a glacial overhang – could break off like it did on Sunday.
Alpine rescuers on Sunday found that the temperature at the 3,300-meter (11,000-foot) summit had surpassed 10C (50F) late last week, far higher than usual. Operators of rustic lodgings along the mountainside said temperatures at 2,000 meters (6,600 feet) have recently reached 24C (75F), unprecedented heat in a place where summer trippers go to cool off.
The glacier in the Marmolada is the largest in the Dolomites in north-eastern Italy. In winter you ski on it. But the glacier has been melting rapidly in recent decades, with much of its volume gone. Experts from the CNR state research center in Italy, which has an institute for polar science, estimated a few years ago that in 25 to 30 years the glacier will no longer exist.
The Mediterranean basin, which includes southern European countries like Italy, has been identified by UN experts as a “climate change hotspot”, which is likely to suffer from heat waves and water shortages, among other things.
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