Frantic searches continue as bodies are pulled from hotel crushed by avalanche
Rescuers pulled three bodies from a hotel engulfed by an avalanche in central Italy as a desperate search for survivors continued last night.
Emergency workers were met with an eerie silence when they reached the four-star spa hotel struck by the avalanche.
At least 30 people are missing, including at least two children, authorities said.
Guests at the three-storey Hotel Rigopiano in the central Abruzzo region alerted emergency workers of the disaster on Wednesday, following a series of quakes in the region.
"Help, we're dying of cold," one couple wrote to rescuers.
Another man, Fabio Salzetta, sent a text message saying he had escaped with a maintenance worker, but that others were trapped inside.
Corriere della Sera quoted the text message as saying: "Some walls were knocked down." And: "I'm outside with a maintenance worker but you can't see anything of the hotel, there's only a wall of snow in front of me."
When rescuers on skis arrived in the early hours of yesterday, they found just two people alive, according to news reports.
Civil protection authorities said that 30 people were missing. One rescuer said there were fatalities. Just one body was reported removed from the hotel by late morning yesterday.
One of those saved was 38-year-old Giampaolo Parete, who told rescuers he had gone outside to get something from the car, which was untouched by the avalanche, but that his wife and two children were buried inside.
Rescue efforts were hampered by the large snowfall in recent days, making it difficult to clear roads for heavy vehicles and ambulances to get through.
The buried hotel was just one of several rescues under way in an area that has been hit by more than three feet of snow in recent days - storms that have knocked out power and phone lines and blocked roads, isolating towns and hamlets.
The timing of the avalanche and the messages remained unclear, but the hotel posted a notice on its Facebook page that its phones were down around 9am following the first of Wednesday's quakes, including one with a 5.7 magnitude. It was not immediately clear if the quakes triggered the avalanche.
Video shot by rescue teams showed huge piles of filthy snow and debris piled up inside corridors, stairwells and an indoor pool area, having slammed through the outer walls of the building. The largest wall of snow shown was in the pool area, where plastic lounge chairs were flipped on their sides and Christmas decorations still dangled from the ceiling.
The bar area appeared flooded, with nearby cracked skylights covered with snow outside.
Aerial video shot by helicopter crews showed rescue workers on top of the snow-covered hotel, digging holes down to get in.
The civil protection agency said that they were working to get rescue vehicles to the hotel through roads covered in snow, joining initial rescue efforts overnight by alpine rescue teams.
The hotel is about 30 miles from the coastal city of Pescara, at an altitude of about 3,940 feet.
The mountainous region of central Italy has been struck by a series of quakes since August that destroyed historic centres in dozens of towns and hamlets.
A deadly quake in August killed nearly 300, while no-one died in the strong aftershocks in October because population centres had already been evacuated.