Italy rescuers finding body parts, gear on glacier after avalanche

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Rescuers found body parts and equipment as they searched for missing hikers Tuesday after a powerful avalanche killed at least seven people and is blamed in large part on rising temperatures melting glaciers.

Officials initially feared 13 hikers were still missing, but the province of Trento on Tuesday reduced the number of missing people to five after eight others reported themselves to authorities.

Rain hampered the search on Monday, but sunny weather on Tuesday allowed helicopters to bring more rescue teams to the site on the Marmolada glacier, east of Bolzano in the Dolomites, even as hopes of finding anyone alive were dimmed.

A huge chunk of glacier split off on Sunday, triggering an avalanche that sent torrents of ice, rock and debris down the mountainside at unsuspecting hikers. According to official figures, at least seven people were killed.

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A view from a rescue helicopter of the Punta Rocca glacier near Canazei in the Italian Alps in northern Italy on Tuesday July 5, two days after a huge chunk of the glacier detached and caused an avalanche of ice, snow and rocks on hikers.
(AP Photo / Luca Bruno)

“We have to realize that finding someone alive with such an event is a very unlikely possibility, very unlikely because the mechanical effect of this type of avalanche has a very big impact on people,” said Alex Barattin of Alpine Rescue Service .

Nicola Casagli, a geologist and avalanche expert at the University of Florence, said the impact of the glacier collapse on hikers was greater than a mere snow avalanche and took them completely by surprise.

“These types of events, which are ice and debris avalanches, are impulsive, rapid, unpredictable phenomena that reach very high speeds and affect large masses,” Casagli said. “And there’s no chance of getting to safety or anticipating the problem because by the time you spot it, you’ve already been hit.”

A rescuer pilots a helicopter to search for the victims of the Punta Rocca glacial avalanche in Canazei in the Italian Alps in northern Italy on Tuesday July 5.

A rescuer pilots a helicopter to search for the victims of the Punta Rocca glacial avalanche in Canazei in the Italian Alps in northern Italy on Tuesday July 5.
(AP Photo / Luca Bruno)

Associated Press photos taken during a helicopter reconnaissance of the site showed a gaping hole in the glacier, as if carved out of the blue-gray ice by a giant ice cream scoop.

The terrain was still so unstable that rescue crews stayed aside, using drones to attempt to find survivors or signs of life while helicopters searched overhead, some with devices to detect cellphone pings. Two rescuers stayed overnight and were joined by more rescuers on Tuesday morning.

Maurizio Dellantonio, national president of the Alpine Rescue Service, said teams found body parts, hiking gear and clothing on the surface of the debris, evidence of the avalanche’s powerful impact on hikers.

“We have recovered so many fragments in the last two days. They are very painful for those who pick them up and then for those who have to analyze them,” he said. “Personally, I can only think that what we’ve found on the surface will be the same as what we’ll find underneath when the ice melts or when it’s possible to dig.”

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Officials closed all access trails and chairlifts to the glacier to hikers, fearing continued instability and the possibility of more chunks of ice shedding.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who visited the rescue base in Canazei on Monday, acknowledged that avalanches are unpredictable but that the tragedy “certainly depends on the worsening of the climate situation”.

Italy is in the midst of an early summer heatwave coupled with the worst drought in northern Italy in 70 years. Experts say the winter saw unusually little snowfall, leaving glaciers in the Italian Alps more exposed to the summer heat and melt.

Rescuers prepare to search for the victims of the Punta Rocca glacial avalanche in Canazei in the Italian Alps in northern Italy on Tuesday July 5.

Rescuers prepare to search for the victims of the Punta Rocca glacial avalanche in Canazei in the Italian Alps in northern Italy on Tuesday July 5.
(AP Photo / Luca Bruno)

“So we’re in the worst conditions for a department like this, with so much heat and so much water running at the base,” said Renato Colucci of the Institute of Polar Sciences of the State Council for National Research, or CNR. “We are not yet able to understand whether the detachment was deep or superficial, but the size appears to be very large based on the preliminary images and information obtained.”

The CNR estimates that the Marmolada Glacier could disappear completely in the next 25 to 30 years if current climatic trends continue, having lost 30% of its volume and 22% of its area between 2004 and 2015.

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Casagli said what happened on the Marmolada was unusual, but such destructive avalanches would become more frequent as global temperatures rise.

“The fact that it happened in a scorching summer with unusual temperatures must be a wake-up call to understand that while these phenomena are rare, they are possible,” he told reporters. “If we don’t take decisive action to counteract the consequences of climate change, they will become more frequent.”

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