Rising waters in Indian Himalayas disrupt rescue bid in tunnel after avalanche

By Alasdair Pal and Neha Arora

TAPOVAN, India (Reuters) – Authorities in India warned on Thursday of rising water levels in a Himalayan river valley hit by a major avalanche as they scaled back a search for 35 construction workers trapped in a flooded tunnel.

Rescue workers have found the bodies of 36 people since Sunday’s avalanche that tore through dams and swept away bridges in the Dhauliganga river valley of Uttarakhand state.

Some 171 people remain unaccounted for, most of them workers at the state-run Tapovan Vishnugad hydroelectric project and at the smaller Rishiganga dam, which was swept away by the avalanche-driven torrent.

An official with the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) said the number of rescue teams were limited at the tunnel site after river water levels began to surge.

“There was an input from a village that the river upstream was swelling so we sounded an alert. The rescue mission was stopped for about 30 minutes,” Swati Bhadoriya, Chamoli District Magistrate, told Reuters.

Relief workers have been drilling inside a 2.5-km-long tunnel connected to the Tapovan project, where slush and water has been so heavy that soldiers have made only halting progress in four days.

Experts have cautioned there could be still be huge amounts of rock, debris, ice and water that could get released due to changes in temperatures.

“Snow melt or rain could trigger a debris flow at any moment, probably not of the size of the event on Sunday, but critical for anybody and anything close to the river,” said Holger Frey, a senior scientist with the Glaciology and Geomorphodynamics Group (3G) in the geography faculty at the University of Zurich.

RESCUE EFFORTS, DISTRAUGHT FAMILIES

After clearing more than 100 meters of mud, rocks and debris, relief workers on Thursday sent water tankers and generators deep into the tunnel to assist in drilling.

They were searching for signs of life in smaller tunnels and rooms branching off from the main passage, officials said.

Relatives continued to arrive at the site, but five days after the disaster, frustration at the lack of progress mounted.

“They are not telling us anything,” said Praveen Saini, whose nephew, Ajay Kumar Saini, is trapped in the tunnel.

Another man was clinging to hope that his brother had survived after he was able to ring his mobile phone. “If his phone survived, maybe he survived,” Jugal Kishore said.

Originally thought to be a glacier breaking apart in India’s second highest mountain Nanda Devi and crashing into the river, some scientists now say the flood was more likely to have been caused by an avalanche.

“It appears that the event was caused by a very large rockfall from high up the mountainside which picked up lots of snow and ice on the way down and melted these because of the frictional heat created by the rock fall,” said Stephan Harrison, professor of Climate and Environmental Change at the University of Exeter in Britain.

(Additional reporting by Saurabh Sharma and Neha Arora; Writing by Neha Arora; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Mark Heinrich)

India glacier avalanche leaves 18 dead, more than 200 missing

By Saurabh Sharma

LUCKNOW, India (Reuters) – Rescuers searched for more than 200 people missing in the Indian Himalayas on Monday, including some trapped in a tunnel, after part of a glacier broke away, sending a torrent of water, rock and dust down a mountain valley.

Sunday’s violent surge below Nanda Devi, India’s second-highest peak, swept away the small Rishiganga hydro electric project and damaged a bigger one further down the Dhauliganga river being built by state firm NTPC.

Eighteen bodies have been recovered from the mountainsides, officials said.

Most of the missing were people working on the two projects, part of the many the government has been building deep in the mountains of Uttarakhand state as part of a development push.

“As of now, around 203 people are missing,” state chief minister Trivendra Singh Rawat said, and the number was changing as more information about people caught up by the deluge emerged from the remote area.

Videos on social media showed water surging through a small dam site, washing away construction equipment and bringing down small bridges.

“Everything was swept away, people, cattle and trees,” Sangram Singh Rawat, a former village council member of Raini, the site closest to the Rishiganga project, told local media.

It was not immediately clear what caused the glacier burst on a bright Sunday morning. Experts said it had snowed heavily last week in the Nanda Devi area and it was possible that some of the snow started melting and may have led to an avalanche.

Rescue squads were focused on drilling their way through a 2.5 km (1.5 miles) long tunnel at the Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower project site that NTPC was building 5 km (3 miles) downstream where about 30 workers were believed trapped.

“We are trying to break open the tunnel, it’s a long one, about 2.5 km,” said Ashok Kumar, the state police chief. He said rescuers had gone 150 meters (yards) into the tunnel but debris and slush were slowing progress.

There had been no voice contact yet with anyone in the tunnel, another official said. Heavy equipment has been employed and a dog squad flown to the site to locate survivors.

On Sunday, 12 people were rescued from another much smaller tunnel.

TRIGGER FOR GLACIER BURST

Uttarakhand is prone to flash floods and landslides and the disaster prompted calls by environment groups for a review of power projects in the ecologically sensitive mountains. In June 2013, record monsoon rains there caused devastating floods that claimed close to 6,000 lives.

A team of scientists were flown over the site of the latest accident on Monday to find out what exactly happened.

“It’s a very rare incident for a glacial burst to happen. Satellite and Google Earth images do not show a glacial lake near the region, but there’s a possibility that there may be a water pocket in the region,” said Mohd Farooq Azam, assistant professor, glaciology & hydrology at the Indian Institute of Technology in Indore.

Water pockets are lakes inside the glaciers, which may have erupted leading to this event. Environmental groups have blamed construction activity in the mountains.

Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People, said that there were clear government recommendations against the use of explosives for construction purposes. “There have been violations.”

The latest accident had also raised questions about the safety of the dams. “The dams are supposed to withstand much greater force. This was not a monsoon flood, it was much smaller.”

(Additional reporting by Nivedita Bhattachargee and Neha Arora; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Michael Perry, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Giles Elgood)

Six dead, two missing as floods hit Indian-ruled Kashmir

People wade through a flooded street after incessant rains in Srinagar April 7, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Ismail

SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) – Six people were killed and two were reported missing in India’s northern region of Kashmir on Friday, after heavy rain and snowfall swept the region, setting off avalanches and turning mountain rivers into raging torrents.

Helicopters were deployed to rescue people cut off by flash floods that revived memories of 2014, when the Jhelum River flowing through the region’s main city, Srinagar, burst its banks, swamping homes and killing 200 people.

Snowfalls triggered multiple avalanches, defense spokesman Rajesh Kalia told Reuters.

“A post in Batalik sector was buried,” he added. “Two out of five soldiers have been rescued. A rescue operation for three soldiers was in progress and three bodies have been recovered.”

In the Poonch region, an Indian Air Force helicopter was guided by a soldier holding a flare toward a group of villagers stranded on the far bank of a river. They climbed a rope ladder into the craft, which then flew them to safety.

Rajiv Pandey, senior superintendent of police in Poonch, said 17 people were evacuated from the area.

In Srinagar, the summer capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, some low-lying districts along the Jhelum were swamped but residents said the river was starting to recede.

“We are relieved as the water level is receding and the rains are reducing,” said one resident. “We are praying that rain should stop.”

(Reporting by Fayaz Bukhari and Reuters Television; Writing by Douglas Busvine; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Italy pulls last of 29 bodies from avalanche hotel

rescue workers pulling last of bodies from italy avalanche disaster

PENNE, Italy (Reuters) – Rescuers have pulled the last of 29 bodies from the wreckage of a hotel in central Italy a week after it was razed by an avalanche, the national fire brigade said on Thursday.

With the discovery on Wednesday night of the bodies of one man and one woman, everyone known to have been at the Hotel Rigopiano when it was flattened has now been accounted for.

Eleven people survived the disaster, which struck in the wake of heavy snowstorms and several powerful earthquakes on Jan. 18. Nine of them, including four children, were extracted shivering after spending days under the crushed masonry.

“When we managed to pull out the survivors it gave us hope and energy,” civil protection agency official Luigi D’Angelo said at an operation base in nearby Penne.

“We never lost that hope, all the way until the end, until we had searched the last centimeter of the hotel.”

Rescuers had to use pickaxes and heavy earth-moving equipment to shift snow and debris and break through the reinforced concrete roof.

Prosecutors have opened an investigation into the tragedy, which Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said would establish if anyone was to blame.

Many guests had wanted to leave before the wall of snow struck but were unable to do so because the access road was already blocked.

The opposition 5-Star Movement criticized cuts to local government funding and the scrapping of a rural police force. They said the national emergency prevention and response system had been ill-prepared.

“It isn’t the snow’s fault,” the 5-Star wrote on founder Beppe Grillo’s blog. “The failure of those who should have prevented this disaster and helped the communities in difficulty is clear to everyone.”

Gentiloni has promised to launch an emergency decree and add to reconstruction funds set aside after earthquakes tore through the heart of Italy last year.

(Reporting by Antonio Denti and Roberto Mignucci in Penne and Isla Binnie in Rome; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Richard Lough)

Rescuers pull more bodies from Italian hotel ruins, protests in Rome

italian firefighters working to rescue people from avalanche

By Antonio Denti and Isla Binnie

FARINDOLA, Italy (Reuters) – Rescuers on Wednesday pulled more bodies from the ruins of an Italian hotel razed by an avalanche as people who lost homes and livelihoods in deadly quakes last year protested in Rome.

Rescuers using pickaxes and mechanical diggers pulled six bodies from the rubble of Hotel Rigopiano a week after it was flattened by a wall of snow, raising the death toll to 24.

No one has been found alive since early Saturday and hopes of finding more survivors are fading. Five people are still missing after the Jan. 18 avalanche struck in the wake of heavy snow storms and a flurry of powerful earthquakes.

Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said he would launch an emergency decree next week and add to money already set aside to rebuild after the area was devastated by tremors last year.

His government has earmarked 4 billion euros in this year’s budget and Gentiloni said he had told Jean Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission which oversees national finances, that they would allocate more.

“It is up to us to make sure that once the disaster is past, further injustice is not created,” he told parliament.

He has said he wants to give more power to disaster management authorities and the earthquake response will require “billions more” euros, but has given no further details.

As the premier spoke, residents of quake-struck towns including Amatrice, where 300 people died last August, marched towards parliament to protest the handling of the crisis.

“No one has done anything,” protester Maria Domenica D’Annunzio said. “A thousand cows have died. The firemen had to take them away with cranes. There are all these abandoned farmers who are still living in caravans surrounded by 2.5 meters of snow.”

Eleven guests and hotel workers survived the avalanche in the Gran Sasso national park. Snow on the road had prevented many from leaving before the disaster struck.

Prosecutors in nearby Pescara have opened an investigation which Gentiloni said would establish whether the emergency response had malfunctioned and if anyone was responsible for the tragedy.

“I share the desire to find the truth but I don’t share a certain desire which I see spreading, for scapegoats and avengers,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Gabriele Pileri, Cristiano Corvino and Crispian Balmer in Rome; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Helicopter crash piles pressure on Italy avalanche region

medical emergency helicopter crash in Italy

By Sasa Kavic and and Roberto Mignucci

FARINDOLA, Italy (Reuters) – A helicopter ambulance crashed in the Italian mountains on Tuesday killing all six on board, further stretching emergency services workers who found victims but no more survivors after an avalanche buried a nearby hotel.

The discovery of the bodies of two women in the afternoon as rescuers searched through the snow and rubble brought the death toll from last Wednesday’s destruction of the Hotel Rigopiano to 17 as the first funerals of the victims were held.

The unrelated crash of the helicopter on the other side of the Gran Sasso range about 100 km (60 miles) away in the Abruzzo region put the emergency services under further strain.

Rescue workers had to climb up part of a mountain to reach the wrecked helicopter, which had been heading to a hospital in the regional capital of L’Aquila with an injured skier aboard when it plunged into a mountainside.

The cause of the crash, which happened in the fog, was not immediately known.

The new disaster hit the region as the first funerals were held for the victims of the avalanche disaster.

Family and friends of hotel worker Alessandro Giancaterino filed into a church in nearby Farindola behind the 42-year-old’s coffin, which was draped with an Inter Milan soccer club flag.

“He was a perfect person. Kind, gentle. He loved his job at the hotel,” one friend said outside the church.

His brother, former Farindola mayor Massimiliano Giancaterino, did not speak to reporters. He told Italian state TV on Monday he had signed off on permission to add an extension to the hotel while in office.

“If I had known this would happen I would have cut off my right arm rather than sign the approval,” the former mayor said. “But hindsight doesn’t solve anything. You only ever think of doing what is best for the area, giving people opportunity.”

Some of the 11 survivors spent two days under ice and rubble. Twelve people are still missing since the wall of snow razed the four-storey building last Wednesday, hours after earthquakes shook Abruzzo and the neighboring regions.

Three puppies were found alive in the hotel’s crushed boiler room on Monday. The last time surviving people were brought out was on Saturday morning.

But officials vowed to carry on with the rescue effort.

“We will not stop until we are certain that no one else is left under there,” said civil protection official Luigi D’Angelo. “We are searching in the heart of the building.”

Prosecutors in nearby Pescara have opened an investigation into the hotel disaster. Pescara prosecutor Cristina Tedeschini said her office would probe the hotel’s structure, accessibility and communications surrounding the incident.

(Additional reporting by Antonio Denti in Penne and Steve Scherer in Rome; Writing by Isla Binnie; Editing by Philip Pullella and Alison Williams)

Italy avalanche death toll rises to 14

Italian firefighters working to save those buried in avalanche

FARINDOLA, Italy (Reuters) – Rescuers working through the night pulled five more bodies from the wreck of a hotel in central Italy that was razed by an avalanche last week, bringing the death toll to 14, the national fire brigade said on Tuesday.

The latest bodies – three men and two women – were recovered hours before families of victims were due to hold the first funerals of those killed in the avalanche.

Eleven people so far have been rescued from in and around the hotel in the Gran Sasso national park, some of them surviving for two days under ice and rubble.

But 15 people are still missing after a wall of snow crashed into the four-storey building last Wednesday, hours after earthquakes shook the region.

Prosecutors in nearby Pescara have opened an investigation into the avalanche.

(Reporting by Sasa Kavic and Roberto Mignucci in Farindola and Isla Binnie in Rome; Editing by Philip Pullella and Hugh Lawson)

Italy avalanche rescuers dig for fifth day, alleged delay probed

Rescue workers at Italy hotel that was covered after avalanche

By Antonio Denti

PENNE, Italy (Reuters) – Rescuers dug in the buried ruins of a mountainside hotel in central Italy for a fifth day running on Monday, as questions multiplied over the initial response to last week’s blizzards and deadly avalanche.

Eleven people survived the Jan. 18 disaster in the Gran Sasso national park, including four children who were extracted from under tonnes of snow and debris on Friday. Six bodies have been recovered and a further 23 people are still missing.

Video footage showed one rescuer wriggling through a tiny hole cut in the concrete roof of the Hotel Rigopiano trying to find more possible survivors.

“We are working on the theory that the avalanche did not necessarily hit or destroy every room and that we haven’t yet reached the heart of the structure,” said Luca Cari, spokesman of the national fire brigades.

“We are continuing to explore the inside of the building in the hope of finding someone alive, although there is no certainty of this.”

Italian media published an email sent by the hotel manager on Jan. 18 to an array of local authorities, urging help to clear the access roads to enable the guests to escape after a series of powerful earthquakes had rattled the region.

“The clients have been terrorized by the tremors,” said the email. However, no help came before the avalanche struck, with local authorities saying that their most powerful snow plow had broken down and they did not have the money to repair it.

“The snow plow had been in for repairs for months”, said Luigi Di Maio, a leading light in the opposition 5-Star Movement, who accused the government of depriving local provinces of vital funds.

The government has promised to review its emergency response apparatus in the wake of the disaster. A court in nearby Pescara has opened an investigation into the tragedy.

Staff operating emergency hotlines allegedly did not take seriously early telephone calls reporting the disaster.

“The operator did not believe me,” said restaurant owner Quintino Marcella, who had called for help after one of his employees telephoned from the obliterated hotel.

Italian media said the emergency services had contacted the hotel’s owner to see if he could confirm the avalanche. He reportedly said he knew nothing about it, but the operators were apparently unaware that he was not actually there.

As a result, the rescue operation only got into gear some 2-1/2 hours later, with the first rescue team arriving by ski 11 hours after the catastrophe because the roads were impassable.

Waiting nervously at a hospital in Pescara, the father of one man who was in the hotel accused authorities of wrongly telling him his son had been rescued along with his girlfriend.

Alessio Feniello said his son’s girlfriend had been pulled to safety and had told her rescuers that Stefano Feniello, 28, was still inside.

“If there was a thread of hope to rescue (my son), there isn’t any hope anymore,” he told reporters.

(Additional reporting by Roberto Mignucci and Carmelo Camilli in Pescara; Writing by Isla Binnie; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Tom Heneghan)

Eight survivors found after massive Italy avalanche

firefighters rescue survivor from Italy hotel that had an avalanche hit

By Antonio Denti and Valentina Consiglio

PENNE, Italy (Reuters) – Eight people were found alive on Friday two days after being buried under a massive avalanche that hit a luxury mountain hotel in central Italy, a Civil Protection official said.

Titti Postiglione told reporters that two of the survivors had already been pulled clear of the snow and debris which destroyed the isolated Hotel Rigopiano on Wednesday. Rescuers were digging to free the remaining six people.

“Finding these people gives us further hope there are other survivors,” Postiglione said.

More than 30 people, including four children, were in the building when the avalanche slammed into it, officials said, reducing much of it to rubble and spreading debris across the valley floor.

Two men who were outside the hotel at the time managed to escape the wall of snow. Officials have confirmed that two bodies have been removed from the site, while Italian media said two more corpses had been located.

One of the survivors found on Friday was a young girl, Deputy Interior Minister Filippo Bubbico said, who is helping coordinate rescue efforts at the scene.

The group were found in the hotel kitchen area which was not crushed by the tonnes of snow that obliterated much of the four-storey building, media said

Helicopters have been dispatched with equipment and doctors to help extract and evacuate the survivors.

The disaster struck the hotel in the Gran Sasso park late on Wednesday afternoon amid a driving snowstorm, just hours after four earthquakes with a magnitude above 5 rattled the area.

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

An investigation into the tragedy has been opened by a court in Pescara amid accusations that the emergency response was slow. The first rescuers arrived amid a snow storm on skis early on Thursday morning, some 11 hours after the avalanche.

Giampiero Parete, a chef who was a guest in the hotel, had gone to his car to get headache pills for his wife when the avalanche struck. His wife and two children, aged six and eight, are still missing.

Parete called his boss, Quintino Marcella, with his cell phone at 5:40 p.m. on Wednesday, just after the avalanche had struck, asking him to call for help.

“He told me: ‘The hotel has collapsed'” Marcella said in an interview with RAI state TV, adding that the local prefecture did not immediately believe him. He kept calling until he was assured help was on the way some two hours later.

(Reporting Antonio Denti in Penne and Valentina Consiglio in Rome, writing by Steve Scherer; Editing by Toby Chopra and Crispian Balmer)

Avalanche destroys Italian hotel, up to 30 feared dead under snow

An aerial view shows Hotel Rigopiano in Farindola, central Italy, hit by an avalanche, in this January 19, 2017 handout picture provided by Italy's firefighters.

By Roberto Mignucci

PENNE, Italy (Reuters) – A huge avalanche swallowed up a luxury mountain hotel in central Italy after a series of strong earthquakes rocked the area, burying up to 30 people under tonnes of snow and debris, officials said on Thursday.

Italian media said three bodies had been retrieved from the site. Rescue workers declined to comment on the reports, but said they had yet to find any sign of life.

The gabled peaks of parts of the roof and a row of windows were the only sections of the four-storey Hotel Rigopiano still visible after the wall of snow smashed into the four-star spa resort early on Wednesday evening.

Local authorities said about 30 people had been in the building at the time, including two children, but more than 20 hours later, only a couple of survivors had been found — two men who had been outside when the disaster struck.

“The hotel is almost completely destroyed. We’ve called out but we’ve heard no replies, no voices,” said Antonio Crocetta, a member of the Alpine Rescue squad who was on the scene.

A photo taken from a video shows the snow inside the Hotel Rigopiano in Farindola, central Italy, hit by an avalanche, in this January 19, 2017 handout picture provided by Italy's Finance Police.

A photo taken from a video shows the snow inside the Hotel Rigopiano in Farindola, central Italy, hit by an avalanche, in this January 19, 2017 handout picture provided by Italy’s Finance Police. Guardia Di Finanza/Handout via REUTERS

“We’re digging and looking for people,” he told Reuters by phone from the isolated location in the Gran Sasso mountain range in the central Abruzzo region.

Rescue workers entered what appeared to be a lobby decorated with oil paintings and plants, where a landslide had torn through a wall, television footage showed.

Mattresses and furniture were spotted dozens of metres (yards) away, local media reported, and sniffer dogs were brought to the area to help locate possible survivors.

“I am alive because I went to get something from my car,” one of the two survivors, Giampiero Parete, told medical staff.

Italian media said he had been on holiday with his wife and two children, who were all still missing.

SNOW DRIFTS

Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni called for national unity, saying Italy was caught in an “unprecedented vice” of earthquakes and heavy snows simultaneously.

The rescue operation was hampered by metres of snow which has fallen on the Gran Sasso in recent days. Drifts made snow as deep as five metres (16 feet) in some places and snow ploughs struggled to cut a path up winding mountain roads.

The first rescuers only managed to arrive at 4.30 a.m. (0330 GMT) after having to ski through a blizzard to reach the site. After dawn broke, emergency services sent in helicopters.

Firefighters arrive near Hotel Rigopiano, hit by an avalanche, in Farindola, central Italy, in this January 19, 2017 handout picture provided by Italy's firefighters.

Firefighters arrive near Hotel Rigopiano, hit by an avalanche, in Farindola, central Italy, in this January 19, 2017 handout picture provided by Italy’s firefighters. Vigili del Fuoco/Handout via REUTERS

A base camp for rescue workers was set up in the town of Penne, some 10 km (6 miles) away, where ambulances waited.

The avalanche shunted the 43-room hotel, which is 1,200 metres (4,000 ft) above sea level, some 10 metres (30 ft) down the hill, according to media reports.

The disaster struck just hours after four earthquakes with a magnitude of above 5.0 hit central Italy, sparking fears about possible avalanches.

Italian media said guests at the hotel had checked out and were waiting for a snow plough to arrive to open up the road and let them down the mountain. However, the avalanche struck before they had been able to leave.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella, Valentina Consiglio and Steve Scherer; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Gareth Jones)