Rescuers warned Monday that hope of finding survivors was diminishing after an avalanche set off by the collapse of an Italian glacier during a heat wave killed at least seven people.
Authorities said they did not know how many climbers were hit when the glacier gave way Sunday on Marmolada, the highest mountain in the Italian Dolomites. Its collapse caused ice and rock to thunder down the slope at 185 miles per hour, according to Trento province chief Maurizio Fugatti.
On Monday, rescuers armed with thermal drones searched for body heat from potential survivors trapped in ice. But chances of finding additional survivors now “are slim to nothing,” because too much time has likely passed since the deadly avalanche occurred, said regional Alpine Rescue Service head Giorgio Gajer in comments to AGI news agency.
Rescuer Gino Comelli, who spoke to the outlet after six bodies had been recovered from the mountain, said those found were “torn apart” as a result of the tragedy.
The death toll rose as search and rescue missions forged ahead at Marmolada on Monday. Fugatti confirmed seven fatalities by the late afternoon, according to AGI, while eight people suffered injuries and at least 14 others remained missing. Two of the wounded hikers were reportedly found in critical condition, and only three of the deceased could be immediately identified. It was still unclear exactly how many people were caught in the avalanche, as missing persons reports continued to pour in throughout the day.
The disaster struck one day after a record-high temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit was recorded at the summit of the glacier, which is the largest in the Italian Alps.
The glacier had been weakened by decades of global warming, experts said.
Alpine Rescue spokeswoman Michela Canova told AFP an “avalanche of snow, ice and rock” hit an access path at a time when there were several roped parties, “some of whom were swept away.”
A spokesman for the Trento province said people were still being reported missing.
Trento’s chief prosecutor Sandro Raimondi was cited by Corriere della Sera as saying he feared the number of dead “could double if not triple,” based on the number of cars left unattended in a parking lot near the mountain.
But Canova urged caution, saying the total number of climbers involved was “not yet known.” At the time, eight people had reportedly been recovered with injuries.
Bodies removed from the ice and rock were taken to the village of Canazei, where Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi traveled to speak about the avalanche on Monday. Helicopters and sniffer dogs were called off as night fell and amid fears the glacier may still be unstable.
“It is difficult for the rescuers in a dangerous situation,” Canazei mayor Giovanni Bernard told AFP.
Images of the avalanche filmed from a refuge close by show snow and rock hurtling down the mountain’s slopes.
“It’s a miracle we’re alive,” Stefano Dal Moro, an engineer who was hiking with his Israeli partner told the newspaper Corriere della Sera. “There was a dull noise, then that sea of ice came down. It’s useless to run, you can only pray that it doesn’t come your way. We crouched down and hugged each other tightly as the ice passed.”
Massimo Frezzotti, a science professor at Roma Tre University, told AFP the collapse was caused by unusually warm weather linked to global warming, with precipitation down 40-50% during a dry winter.
“The current conditions of the glacier correspond to mid-August, not early July,” he said.
Glacier specialist Renato Colucci told AGI that the phenomenon was “bound to repeat itself,” because “for weeks the temperatures at altitude in the Alps have been well beyond normal values.”
The recent warm temperatures had produced a large quantity of water from the melting glacier that accumulated at the bottom of the block of ice and caused it to collapse, he added.
The Trento public prosecutor’s office has opened an investigation to determine the causes of the tragedy.
The IPCC has said glaciers in Scandinavia, central Europe and the Caucasus could lose between 60 and 80% of their mass by the end of the century.