Alpine avalanche leaves 7 known dead, 14 missing in Italy

ROME (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 remained missing as of Monday afternoon: 10 Italians, three from the Czech Republic and one from Austria. “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 mountain’s parking lot, the occupants of which were not found – two cars had license plates from the Czech Republic, one from Germany and the fourth from Hungary.

Fugatti pointed out the possibility that there could be people whose families are unaware of their status, as they may be on vacation and only check in with relatives at the end of the vacation.

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.

On Sunday, officials said nine people were injured, but officials said at a press conference Monday in the resort town of Canazei that eight people, including two, were hospitalized in what they described as “sensitive” and 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, who flanked officials after meeting with family members of some of the dead, expressed “the most sincere, loving and heartfelt closeness” to the families.

With a grim expression, he demanded measures to ensure that such a tragedy does not happen again. “This is a drama that certainly has some unpredictability,” Draghi said, echoing several experts who said an avalanche triggered by a glacier breaking up could not be predicted.

But what happened “certainly depends on the environmental destruction and the climate situation,” said the prime minister.

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 is getting closer” to the affected families, said Draghi. “The government needs to reflect on what happened and take action to ensure that there is very little or no repetition of what happened.”

The severed portion of the glacier was massive, estimated to be 200 meters (yards) 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 say 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 mountain rescuers said the temperature at the top of the glacier topped 10C (50F) last week, when it should normally be around freezing at this time of year.

Drones were deployed to search for missing people and check security, but even they were forced to halt operations when thunderstorms swept the area late in the morning.

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 high temperatures have been widely cited as a likely factor.

Jacopo Gabrieli, a polar scientist at the CNR state research center in Italy, 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 as it did on Sunday.

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 drive us to urgently seek new ways that respect people and nature,” wrote Francis.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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