January 20, 2017 / 9:32 AM / in 9 months

Four children and woman rescued, two days after Italy avalanche

Members of Alpine and Speleological Rescue Team and Finance Police probe the snow to search for survivors at the Hotel Rigopiano in Farindola, central Italy, hit by an avalanche, in this handout picture released on January 20, 2017 provided by Alpine and Speleological Rescue Team. Soccorso Alpino Speleologico/Handout via REUTERS

PENNE, Italy (Reuters) - Four children and a woman were saved on Friday from the wreckage of a mountain hotel in central Italy that was flattened by an avalanche, surviving almost two days in sub-zero temperatures in the buried ruins of the luxury spa.

A further five people have been located, trapped under tonnes of snow and debris, and rescuers said they would work through the night to try to free them, while the hunt continued for other possible survivors.

More than 30 people were in the Hotel Rigopiano on Wednesday afternoon when a wall of snow and toppled trees tore apart the isolated building. So far two bodies have been recovered, officials said.

After a fruitless night scouring the disaster site, sniffer dogs helped locate a first group of people who were buried in a small room, its roof of reinforced concrete protecting them from the heavy weight of snow that had entombed the hotel.

“They were incredulous when they heard our voices. They couldn’t believe it,” said Marco Bini, a rescue worker from Italy’s finance police. “They survived thanks to this bubble of air that formed inside the hotel.”

Rescuers clapped and shouted “bravo” as first a boy of eight was pulled to the surface and then his mother. Both appeared to be in good health and were helicoptered to safety.

Officials said they were the son and wife of Giampiero Parete, who had left the hotel to get medicine from his car seconds before the avalanche hit and had subsequently raised the alarm.

His six-year-old daughter was rescued as night fell on Friday along with the only other two missing children.

“UNPRECEDENTED EMERGENCY”

Fire service spokesman Luca Cari told Reuters rescuers were talking to the other trapped survivors and said one of them appeared to be injured.

“The rescue operation is very long and difficult ... We are dealing with reinforced concrete that has collapsed,” he said, adding the structure was instable and that there was the threat of more avalanches as temperatures started to rise.

The disaster struck during one of the worst snow storms in Italy in the past 50 years and came hours after four earthquakes with a magnitude above 5 rattled the region.

As much as 5 meters (16 ft) of snow covered much of what was left of the Rigopiano Hotel, said Walter Milan, a member of the Alpine Rescue service at the scene. Only sections of the spa and swimming area were intact, he said.

Elsewhere in central Italy, the army was helping to dig out communities left stunned by the double blow of snow and quakes. The bodies of three missing people were discovered in the region during the day, possibly victims of the cold.

Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said Italy had set aside 4 billion euros ($4.3 billion) in its 2017 budget for earthquake reconstruction, but said it was “clear we will need billions more for this emergency and reconstruction.”

His cabinet agreed on Friday to release 30 million euros immediately to deal with the latest crisis.

“It is difficult to imagine more exceptional circumstances than these,” he told state RAI television. “The civil protection agency is managing an unprecedented emergency.”

Reporting Antonio Denti in Penne and Valentina Consiglio and Steve Scherer in Rome; Writing by Isla Binnie and Crispian Balmer; Editing by Janet Lawrence

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