Five years ago, a major avalanche hit luxury Hotel Rigopiano, near Farindola, killing 29 people.

In the afternoon of January 18, 2017, an avalanche of snow, debris and tree trunks engulfed the Hotel Rigopiano. A police report later said that the force of the avalanche was as if four thousand fully loaded trucks had crashed into the hotel at a speed of 100km per hour. The impact was so violent that the three-storey building rotated about 13 degrees and was moved over 10 meters from its original place. Of the 40 people who were inside the hotel 29 died.

Avalanche

The Rigopiano-Gran Sasso Resort Hotel was located at an altitude of 1,200 meters. In the fateful year of 2017, heavy snowfalls hit the area with almost four metres of snow registered in some places. The only road that connected the hotel to the village of Farindola was snowed under and impassable. On the early morning of January 18, the prefecture of Pescara knew that Rigopiano was isolated as they received reports from the hotel representatives and municipality officials.

Hotel Rigopiano buried by the avalanche. Photo via Vigili del Fuoco

That same day, between 9.25 and 13.30, four earthquakes with a magnitude of more than 5 hit central Italy. The Hotel Rigopiano guests were frightened and wanted to leave as soon as possible.  They all gathered in the hotel’s lobby waiting. The hotel workers managed to clear a short stretch of the road but did not have the equipment to remove the snow from the main road.

At around 4.45pm, a 19,000 ton mass of snow, debris and tree trunks descended from Mount Siella,  (at an altitude of 1,969m) and covering  the 2-kilometer valley in a few seconds, violently hitting the hotel, smashing the upper floors and burying it.

Rescue

Phone lines were down but one of the survivors managed to call a friend on WhatsApp to tell about the avalanche, who subsequently contacted emergency services. Nobody believed him and only after almost two hours the Civil Protection services started the rescue operation sending thirty people to the hotel at around 8pm but they had to stop as a blizzard was raging and the snow kept falling. Four Alpine rescuers continued on snowshoes and arrived to Rigopiano at midnight to find a complete devastation.  

Rescue teams looking for survivors. Photo via Vigili del Fuoco

The main road was cleared next day and firefighters managed to extract nine survivors from the rubble over the first two days. The rescue operation lasted a week (see some footage here). One family of survivors has written a book (in Italian) about their ordeal.

Investigation

The victims’ families are still waiting for justice to be served. ANSA news agency reports that, the next preliminary hearing is scheduled for January 28 but the trial is not expected to start just yet as the judge has ordered another technical report. Several engineers and consultants have to find out whether the earthquake caused the avalanche. The reports presented by the prosecution and the defence so far have given contradicting results.

Hotel Rigopiano buried by the avalanche. Photo via Vigili del Fuoco

30 people will be facing numerous charges such as illegal construction of the hotel, negligence leading to injury and death, manslaughter. Among the defendants are regional and provincial government officials, a police chief, officials from the prefecture of Pescara and municipality of Farindola, employees of the prefecture of Pescara who tried to hide several files and reports to mislead investigation.

Hotel Rigopiano before the avalanche

The investigation into what happened in Rigopiano is a mammoth undertaking in its volume, complexity, and technical details. It is divided into four sections: the delays in the activation of the rescue services, the management of the emergency, the construction of the hotel in an avalanche-prone area and failure to carry out adequate danger assessment surveys.

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