7 dead, 14 missing in Italian Alpine avalanche

ROME (AP) — Thunderstorms Monday hampered a day-long search for a dozen unaccounted for hikers after a large section of an Alpine glacier broke off in Italy, sending an avalanche of snow, ice and rock. Down the slope. Officials put the known death toll at seven.

“I hope the numbers stop here,” said Luca Zaia, governor of Veneto, which borders the Dolomite mountain range in northeastern Italy, including the Marmalade glacier. He spoke in the resort town of Ganassi, where a mortuary was set up on the ice rink.

Another regional leader, Maurizio Fugati, said Monday afternoon that 14 people were unaccounted for: 10 Italians, three from the Czech Republic and one from Austria. “We have been contacted by families because these people have not returned home,” said Fugatti, from the Trentino-Alto Adige Alpine region.

In the parking lot of the mountain, four cars remained, the occupants of which were not found – two cars had plates from the Czech Republic, one from Germany, and the fourth from Hungary.

Fugati raised the possibility that there may be people whose family status is unknown because they are on vacation and only checking in with relatives at the end of the vacation.

At least three of the dead were Italians, officials said. Italian news reports said one of the dead was from the Czech Republic, widely known in English as the Czech Republic.

On Sunday, officials said nine people had been injured, but at a news conference in the resort town of Canasi on Monday, officials described the number as eight, including two hospitalized.

Among those hospitalized were two Germans and a 40-year-old patient who has yet to be identified, Jaya said.

The avalanche roared as dozens of hikers were on excursions, some of them roped together.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, alongside the authorities after meeting family members of some of the dead, expressed “very sincere, affectionate, heartfelt closeness” to the families.

He demanded that steps be taken to prevent such incidents from happening again. “It’s definitely a play with some unpredictability,” Draghi said, echoing many experts who have said an avalanche triggered by a glacier break cannot be predicted.

But what happened “‘definitely depends on environmental degradation and climate conditions,” the prime minister said.

The Marmalade Glacier has been shrinking for decades and may not be within 25-30 years, scientists at the government CNR Research Center have said.

“Today, Italy is getting closer,” Draghi said, around the families of the victims. “The government needs to think about what happened and take steps so that what happened has very little or no chance of happening again.”

The detached portion of the glacier was estimated to be 200 meters (yards) wide, 80 meters high and 60 meters deep. Jaya compared the avalanche to “an apartment building (size) of ice with debris and cyclopean rocks.”

“I can’t say anything but the facts, and the facts tell us that higher temperatures are not conducive to these conditions,” Jaya told reporters.

Italy is in the grip of a week-long heat wave, and alpine rescue teams said temperatures reached 10 C (50 F) at the top of the glacier last week.

Drones were used to search for missing people and check safety, but had to cease operations during morning thunderstorms.

It was not immediately clear what caused the glacier’s peak to break off and thunder down the slope at a speed estimated by experts at about 300 km (nearly 200 mph).

But high temperatures were widely cited as a possible factor.

Jacopo Gabrieli, a polar science researcher at Italy’s state-run CNR research center, noted that the long heat wave in May and June was the hottest in northern Italy for nearly 20 years.

“It’s absolutely an anomaly,” Gabrieli said in an interview with Italian state television on Monday. Like other experts, he said it’s impossible to predict when or if a peak will break off from the top of a glacier, as it did Sunday.

The temperature at the 2,000-meter (6,600-foot) level recently reached 24C (75 F), according to operators of primitive lodges on the hillsides — unheard of in a place where summer hikers find it chilly.

A glacier in the Marmolada mountain range, the largest of the Dolomites in northeastern Italy. People ski on it in winter. But the glacier has been melting so rapidly over the past decades that it has lost much of its volume.

The Mediterranean basin, which includes southern European countries such as Italy, has been identified by UN experts as a “climate change hot spot” and is likely to experience heat waves and water shortages, among other consequences.

Pope Francis, who has made caring for the planet a priority in his papacy, tweeted prayers for the victims of the avalanche and their families.

“The tragedies we are experiencing due to climate change should prompt us to urgently seek new ways of respecting people and nature,” Francis wrote.

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