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Italy avalanche: 6 people found alive in buried hotel, 2 rescued

By Barbie Latza Nadeau, John Fiegener and Laura Smith-Spark CNN

PENNE, Italy (CNN) -- Two people buried in an avalanche-hit Italian mountain hotel have been rescued, while another four survivors are still inside, according to Marco Bini from the Italian financial police's alpine rescue team.

Bini told CNN that the two people have been taken to hospital in nearby Pescara while rescuers work to retrieve the remaining four.

He also said that an additional two or three people have been found but rescuers are still not sure if they are alive.

Bini recounted how the six who were found -- 43 hours after the avalanche struck -- called out "angels, angels" when the rescuers first broke through to find them, in what was a highly emotional moment for all involved.

The breakthrough came when rescuers using search equipment located a small, open space Thursday night beneath an area of roof in the wreckage of the Hotel Rigopiano, Bini said.

The search was suspended for five hours in the early hours amid avalanche fears but when the search resumed Friday morning, the team heard voices after using a drill to punch a hole in the roof -- and then discovered the six survivors.

The two people pulled out from the hotel are showing signs of hypothermia, Bini said, but layers of snow above and below them provided some insulation from the bitter cold.

The four others are receiving emergency medical treatment at the scene but rescuers haven't yet been able to extract them from the cramped space, Bini said. Two will be taken to a bigger hospital in L'Aquila with severe hypothermia.

Authorities have yet to give a definitive number for those missing. But at least 20 people are thought still to be unaccounted for.

Children among survivors

Rescuers are trying to get any information they can from the four which might help to locate other people missing under the snow, Bini said.

Two of the six people found are children, Bini said, but it's not clear if either of them have been pulled out yet. Three children were thought to be among those trapped in the hotel.

The discovery of survivors has given new energy to the search and rescue teams, who are battling freezing conditions and failing light as they work to uncover the second spot where people have been found.

They are having to work with their hands much of the time because of the treacherous conditions, Bini said.

Two people were rescued from the hotel site on Thursday, Civil Protection Department chief Fabrizio Curcio told journalists, bringing to eight the total number of known survivors so far. Two people have been confirmed dead.

One of those found Thursday was Giampiero Parete, who was vacationing with his wife and two children, 6 and 8.

He said he missed being caught in the destruction only because he had walked to his car to get medicine for his wife just before the avalanche hit. It's not yet known if his wife and children are among the survivors found Friday.

The four-star hotel, at the foot of the Gran Sasso mountain about 135 kilometers (85 miles) northeast of Rome, was buried in snow Wednesday afternoon local time after a series of earthquakes.

Officials had said some people could have survived in air pockets within the building but hopes of finding anyone alive had been fading Friday before the news broke that six had been found.

Now the families of those missing are gathering at the hospital in Pescara in hope of hearing that their loved ones have been pulled out alive.

Luxury hotel

Civil Protection services said that the hotel was in the process of being evacuated due to the earthquake when the avalanche hit. Guests had settled their bills and were waiting together in the lobby with their luggage.

Officials based estimates of the missing on guest registration and staff numbers. The hotel has 43 rooms and spa facilities, according to website TripAdvisor.

The fire department said the hotel had been "completely slammed" in the avalanche and debris was scattered as far as 100 meters from the hotel structure, making the search area large.

The force of the avalanche was so great that the hotel building has shifted 10 meters (11 yards) down the slope from its foundations, the Civil Protection Department said.

Difficult access

Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said the country hadn't seen this much snowfall in decades.

The deep snow combined with the earthquake created a perfect storm of sorts, exacerbating the aftermath of the quake.

"For the weather, you tell people to stay in their homes, while for the earthquake, citizens must be brought outside. Putting together these two elements is extremely complicated," Curcio said.

Access to the hotel has been difficult, but road crews cleared much of the snow and fallen trees by Thursday night, allowing heavy rescue equipment to reach the building.

Snow machines and helicopters had earlier taken searchers, including dogs, up the mountain.

Local guests

Poor communications are complicating efforts by authorities to establish exactly who is missing.

The avalanche struck at about 5 p.m., meaning unregistered visitors or hikers could well have been there as well as registered guests.

All the guests are believed to have been local people who were taking advantage of discounted rates to stay in a normally pricey spa hotel before the peak February skiing season.

One of the guests had been made homeless by tremors in the Abruzzo region in August and had booked into the hotel on a break away from their temporary accommodation.

People in shelters

Rescuers were still trying to get to other areas isolated by the avalanche, Gentiloni said, and authorities were hoping to bring power back to as many as 90,000 people who were left in darkness overnight from the extreme weather.

Many people slept in shelters overnight Thursday to Friday despite the bitter cold and continuing snowfall because of the fear of more avalanches.

CNN's Barbie Latza Nadeau and John Fiegener reported from Penne, while CNN's Laura Smith-Spark wrote from London. CNN's Angela Dewan contributed to this report.

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