PENNE—Like most kids under ten, Edoardo, Samuele and Ludovica were growing anxious as they waited in the lobby of the Rigopiano Resort Hotel on Wednesday afternoon after 5pm. Due to dangerous blizzard conditions and a level four (out of five) avalanche warning, the nearly 40 guests and hotel workers were called to the lobby to be evacuated. As the parents of each of the children settled their bills and gathered their luggage to wait for someone to open the narrow road about 15 miles down the mountain to safety, Edoardo, Samuele and Ludovica ran off to the hotel’s game room to play billiards. Ludovica’s mother Adriana and her brother Gianfillipo waited while Ludovica’s father Gianpaolo Parete went outside to the car to get some medicine for his wife’s headache.
It was then that an avalanche of snow, uprooted pine trees and mud, traveling at a speed of around 65 miles per hour, crashed into the Rigopiano hotel, sweeping much of it six feet forward and covering it with 16 feet of snow. Parete, a local chef, called the first person he could think of, Quintino Marcella, a former professor at his cooking school who lived nearby. “A wall of snow wiped out everything, my whole family is inside” Parete said, according to Marcella, who then called the emergency number to send help.
But Marcella also met an obstacle of his own. The emergency operator assured him that “everything is fine at the hotel,” he said. “She told me they had checked two hours earlier and the proprietor said all was well and that they were evacuating down the mountain. Marcella was incredulous. He called every emergency service number that he could find. Each one doubted his story, since it had already been noted as "dubious." Anyway, they were busy with other rescues of stranded residents in the area, they said. Marcella says he then called his friends and urged them to also call about sending help to the hotel. “A few hours later, after more people called, they finally sent help,” he told reporters.
Those two hours certainly proved crucial. By the time Italy’s emergency services were dispatched, the only road to the hotel was blocked in with falling snow. It would take nearly 12 hours for the first of the responders to arrive. As the Fire Brigade officials worked to tunnel out a narrow passage through the road, Italy’s elite Alpine rescuers could only reach the area on skis, which they did around 4:30 am. High winds kept helicopters away for several more hours. Meanwhile, Edoardo,Samuel and Ludovica hid in the billiard room while Ludovica’s mother and brother found refuge in the hotel kitchen.
Walter Milan, the spokesperson for the Alpine forces, was among those first on the scene. “It was so frustrating,” he told me standing outside the rescue staging area when he came down from the mountain Thursday afternoon. “We had to use our bare hands. We kept yelling and yelling but no one yelled back.”
What Milan didn’t know is that at least nine people were still alive under the rubble of the ruined hotel, where George Clooney reportedly stayed when he shot the film The American. Rescuers were worried about using heavy equipment for fear they might cause the structure to collapse, potentially crushing anyone who might be alive in an air pocket. What no one knew was that far below the snow, in a room that was remarkably intact, the three young children were not only alive, they were hunkering in for the night. Talking through the wall with Ludovica’s mother, they found a box of single-portion Nutella spread packets and bottled water, which they laid out on the billiard table.
Using sniffer dogs and high-tech devices that measure movement and heat, the rescuers found an area where, based on echoes, they thought could be an air pocket. But the weather conditions worsened, and by 2am early Friday morning, they had to call off the search and come back down the mountain for fear they, too, would be swept away in the snow. They started searching again at first light on Friday. They went back to the area they identified and started digging through the snow. Soon, they heard voices. It was Ludovica’s mother Adriana and her brother. Within a few hours they pulled them out as rescuers cheered. “Our tears were freezing,” Marco Binni, head of the Guardia di Finanza Alpine Rescue team said a few hours later. “They called us angels.”
But the rescuers still hadn’t found the three young kids in the billiard room, despite Adriana’s attempt to tell them where the voices were coming from. Hours later, they also found the children, after digging through the snow and breaking a hole in the ceiling. There, the kids’ faces, smeared with Nutella, explained that “the adults are in the other room.” One reportedly apologized for smearing chocolate on the green felt of the game table. Ludovica asked if she could have a Ringo cookie.The family were reunited in a local hospital in Pescara, where they are undergoing psychological treatment. They are in remarkably healthy condition, the spokesman for the hospital said. "They don't remember anything," Marcella, who has visited them since they arrived, told reporters. "It's better if those children don't ever think or even talk about that again."
A short time after the children were brought out, rescuers found four other people who had survived. They also pulled out the bodies of two women who did not. One man had to have emergency surgery on his smashed arm. Another man’s rescuer described how he held on to his wife’s hand for hours, talking to her to keep her alive. “After a while she let go,” he told his rescuer, who relayed the sad story to reporters gathered to hear anything that resembled good news in such a tragic situation. “That’s when he knew she left him.” The other body was Edoardo’s mother, who will never know what a tiny hero her young son was. His father was still among the 23 missing on Saturday night as worsening weather conditions once again hampered rescue efforts as the threat of a fresh avalanche loomed.
"People can survive up to six days in those conditions," Milan said on day four. "We won't give up hope. That's what keeps the search alive."