Italy glacier avalanche: body parts found in search for missing hikers

·5 min read
A helicopter searches the area where the glacier collapsed on Sunday - Reuters
A helicopter searches the area where the glacier collapsed on Sunday - Reuters

Alpine rescuers scouring a mountain in the Dolomites of northern Italy where at least seven hikers were killed by a collapsing glacier recovered body parts that were strewn across the area on Tuesday.

The grim discoveries came as experts warned that other victims of the avalanche on 10,967ft (3,343 metre) high Mount Marmolada might never be found.

Seven people died, eight were injured and five are still missing after a giant chunk of ice broke off from the glacier that caps Mount Marmolada, nicknamed “the Queen of the Dolomites”, on Sunday.

It raced down the side of the mountain at an estimated 300kmh, giving hikers, some of whom were roped together, little time to get out of the way.

“There were people who were unrecognisable, bodies disfigured and mangled,” said Alex Barattin, a mountain rescuer.

“The amount of material that fell was enormous and it had devastating effects. Finding someone alive with this type of event is a very remote possibility, very remote, because the mechanical action of this type of avalanche has a very big impact on people.”

Some of the recovered remains could help identify victims, including “bones that have not been flayed, a piece of hand with a ring, tattoos, anything that can enable a person to be identified,” said Maurizio Dellantonio, the national head of the Italian alpine rescue service. “We have recovered so many fragments over the last two days.”

Unusually sparse snowfall during the winter has exposed glaciers in the Dolomites and Alps more to the summer heat, glaciologists say.

They predict that the Marmoloda glacier is likely to melt into oblivion by the year 2050.

People watching a rescue helicopter operating on the slopes of Mount Marmolada in northern Italy - AFP
People watching a rescue helicopter operating on the slopes of Mount Marmolada in northern Italy - AFP

The tragedy came after days of abnormally high temperatures across Italy, with cities like Rome, Florence and Bologna baking in 40C heat and the Po River at its lowest level for 70 years.

On Tuesday, the Italian government declared a state of emergency in five northern regions.

The government will send more than €36 million to Veneto – where the glacier collapsed – as well as Emilia-Romagna, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Lombardy and Piedmont to help them deal with the water shortage, which threatens agricultural production.

Relatives fear the hikers’ fate may be similar to the Italian and Austro-Hungarian soldiers who died fighting in the Dolomites during the First World War – after years of brutal high altitude warfare, some corpses were never recovered.

“You know what the worst thing is, the thing that tears me up inside? That they will be like those soldiers,” an Italian man whose son is missing, told Corriere della Sera in the town of Canazei, where relatives are anxiously awaiting news of the missing.

“Up there, half a mountain of rock and ice came down – when will they be found? It could take years.”

One of the missing Italian hikers, Filippo Bari, 27, who has a four-year-old son, took a selfie of himself smiling on the mountain, with the caption “look where I am!”, shortly before the glacier collapsed.

If the bodies are not found, relatives will struggle to mourn the death of their loved ones and may hold out false hopes that they survived the disaster, psychologists said.

An investigation is underway to ascertain whether the tragedy could have been predicted.

Many experts described it as a freak occurrence. “This was a unique event of an extraordinary magnitude. It is very sad but I don’t think it is anyone’s fault,” said Dimitri De Gol, an official from the alpine rescue service.

Aerial view taken from a rescue helicopter shows the Punta Rocca glacier that collapsed on Mount Marmolada - AFP
Aerial view taken from a rescue helicopter shows the Punta Rocca glacier that collapsed on Mount Marmolada - AFP

Luca Zaia, the governor of Veneto region, likened the chunk of glacier that broke off to “an enormous skyscraper of ice.” He said: “How can one predict a thing like that?”

But others said the warning signs had been evident for weeks, as high temperatures led to the melting of the glacier and the creation of unstable conditions.

“In just a few weeks an immense accumulation of water formed beneath the glacier,” said Gino Comelli, another alpine rescue official. “The pressure of the water, squeezed between the ice and the rock, gave way like a bomb.”

On Saturday, the day before the disaster, the temperature at the summit of the glacier was 10C – that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Carlo Budel, the manager of the Punta Penia refuge at the top of the glacier, said that this year he had been hearing the “frightening” sound of water flowing beneath the glacier.

“The streams were digging away, digging away. There was a lake beneath the serac that collapsed.”

But there was no point in looking for a scapegoat. “We all have a collective blame for the way in which we are treating our planet,” he said.

Filippo Bari, 27, took this selfie on Mount Marmolada and sent it to his family. He was later killed in the avalanche. - Social media
Filippo Bari, 27, took this selfie on Mount Marmolada and sent it to his family. He was later killed in the avalanche. - Social media

Search efforts resumed on Tuesday, with police and rescue services sending helicopters and four drones over the area.

Mario Draghi, the prime minister, visited the Dolomites on Monday to offer his condolences to victims’ families.

“This is a drama that certainly has unforeseen elements, but certainly is also linked to the deterioration of the environment and the climate situation,” he said.

Meanwhile, there was grave concern over the health of another glacier, on the border between Italy and France.

High temperatures are putting at risk the Planpincieux glacier on the Italian side of Mont Blanc.

Officials said there was a danger that a chunk of the glacier consisting of 400,000 cubic metres of ice could shear off and plunge to the valley below.

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