Alpine avalanche leaves 7 known dead, 13 missing in Italy

CANAZEI, Italy (AP) — Thunderstorms on Monday hampered the search for more than a dozen hikers missing for a day after a huge chunk of an Alpine glacier in Italy broke off, sending an avalanche of ice, snow and rock down the slope. Officials put the known death toll at seven.

“I hope the numbers stop there,” said Venetian governor Luca Zaia, whose region of north-eastern Italy borders the Dolomite chain including the Marmolada glacier. He spoke in the resort of Canazei, where a mortuary was set up in the ice rink.

Another regional leader, Maurizio Fugatti, said 14 people were missing as of Monday afternoon: 10 Italians, three from the Czech Republic and one from Austria. Local officials later said that Austrian consular officials had been in contact with the Austrian.

“We have been contacted by families because these people have not returned home,” said Fugatti, from the Alpine region of Trentino-Alto Adige.

Four cars stopped in the parking lot of the mountain, the occupants of which were not found – two cars had Czech license plates; one vehicle came from Germany and the fourth from Hungary.

At least three of the dead were Italians, the authorities said. According to Italian news reports, one of the deceased was from the Czech Republic, better known in English as the Czech Republic.

One of the Italians was Filippo Bari, 28, who took a selfie with the Marmolada glacier in the background just minutes before the avalanche, his brother Andrea told state television in Canazei, where he came from to identify the body.

Although he’s an experienced mountain hiker, his brother said his family always told him to be careful in the mountains, “especially in these temperatures.” Partner and a 4 year old son, smiled. “He died doing what he loved.”

On Sunday, officials said nine people were injured, but on Monday they told reporters in Canazei that eight were injured, including two in serious condition.

Zaia said the hospital patients included two Germans and a 40-year-old patient who has yet to be identified.

The avalanche fell when dozens of hikers were walking, some of them roped.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi looked grim after meeting the families of some of the dead and called for action to be taken to ensure such a tragedy does not happen again.

“This is a drama that certainly has some unpredictability and certainly depends on the environmental degradation and the climate situation,” Draghi said, echoing several experts who said an avalanche triggered by a glacial fracture could not be predicted.

The Marmolada glacier has been shrinking for decades, and scientists at the state-run CNR research center have said it will be gone in 25 to 30 years.

“Today Italy weeps for the victims, all Italians embrace them with affection,” Draghi said. “The government needs to think about what happened and take action so that what happened has a very small chance of happening again or is avoided altogether.”

The severed part of the glacier was massive and estimated at 200 meters wide, 80 meters high and 60 meters deep. Zaia likened the avalanche to a “block of ice (the size of a residential building) with debris and cyclopean rock masses.”

“I can’t tell you anything other than the facts, and the facts tell us that the high temperatures are not conducive to these situations,” Zaia told reporters.

Italy is being hit by a week-long heatwave and alpine rescuers said the temperature at the top of the glacier surpassed 10C (50F) last week, although it should normally be hovering around freezing at this time of year.

What exactly caused a peak 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) was not initially known.

But high temperatures were often cited as a factor.

“The atmosphere and climate, especially below 3,500 meters, are completely out of whack thanks to the ‘new’ climate we are registering and unfortunately these events are likely to repeat themselves in the years to come,” said Renato Colucci of das Institute of Polar Sciences in the State Council for National Research (CNR).

Jacopo Gabrieli, another glacier expert at CNR, told state television that the long heatwave that spanned May and June was the hottest in northern Italy for that period in almost 20 years – “absolutely an anomaly”.

Operators of rustic lodgings along the mountainside said temperatures at 2,000 meters (6,600 feet) recently reached 24°C (75°F) – unheard of in a place where summer trippers head 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.

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.

Pope Francis, who has made protecting the planet a priority of his papacy, tweeted an invitation to pray for avalanche victims and their families.

“The tragedies we are witnessing with climate change must make us urgently seek new ways that respect people and nature,” Francis wrote.

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Frances D’Emilio reported from Rome.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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