ROME – A large chunk of an alpine glacier broke off on Sunday and tumbled down a mountain in Italy, sending ice, snow and rocks slamming at hikers on a popular summit trail and killing at least six people and injuring nine, authorities said, warning the toll could climb.
A local civil protection official, Gianpaolo Bottacin, was quoted by Italian news agency ANSA as providing the toll, but stressing the situation was “evolving” and there could be possibly 15 people missing.
At the end of the evening, the National Alpine and Caving Rescue Corps tweeted a phone number to call family or friends in the event of “non-return from possible excursions” on the glacier.
Rescuers were checking license plates in the parking lot as part of checks to determine how many people might be missing, a process that could take hours, Corps spokesman Walter Milan told The Associated. Press by telephone.
The glacier, in the Marmolada range, is the largest of the Dolomite mountains in northeast Italy and people ski there in winter. But the glacier has rapidly melted in recent years.
Experts from the Italian research center CNR, which has a polar science institute, say the glacier will no longer exist in the next 25 to 30 years and that much of its volume has already disappeared.
The Mediterranean basin, shared by southern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, has been identified by UN experts as a “climate change hotspot”, likely to suffer, among other consequences, heat waves and water shortages.
“We saw dead people (people) and huge pieces of ice, rock,” exhausted-looking rescuer Luigi Felicetti told Italian public television.
Nationalities or ages of the dead were not immediately available, Milan said.
Among the hospitalized survivors, two were in serious condition, authorities said.
The fast-moving avalanche “came down with a roar that could be heard from a great distance,” local online media site ildolomiti.it said.
The search by helicopter and dogs for other victims or missing was temporarily halted for the night while rescuers assessed the risk that more of the glacier could break away, Walter Cainelli told state television after conducted a rescue mission with a search dog.
Rescuers said blocks of ice continued to fall. At the beginning of the evening, a light rain began to fall.
The SUEM expedition service, which is based in the nearby Veneto region, said 18 people who were above the area where the ice struck would be evacuated by the Alpine Rescue Corps.
According to local emergency services, some of those who made the trek to the area where the avalanche struck were tied together by rope.
But Milan said some of the hikers might be able to descend on their own, including using the summit cable car.
SUEM said the avalanche consisted of “a dumping of snow, ice and rock”. The detached section is known as the ice serac or pinnacle.
Nicknamed the “Queen of the Dolomites,” Marmolada rises to around 11,000 feet and is the highest of the 18 peaks in this eastern range of the Italian Alps, offering spectacular views of other alpine peaks.
The Alpine Rescue Service said in a tweet that the segment came to an end near Punta Rocca (Rock Point), “along the route normally used to reach the summit”.
The cause of the ice section breaking off and falling down the slope of the peak was not immediately clear. But the intense heat wave that has gripped Italy since late June has presented itself as a possible factor.
“The temperatures of those days clearly had an influence” on the partial collapse of the glacier, Maurizio Fugatti, the president of the province of Trento, which borders Marmolada, told Sky TG24 news.
But Milan pointed to high heat, which soared unusually above 50 F at the top of Marmolada in recent days, as just one possible factor in Sunday’s tragedy.
“There are so many factors that could be involved,” Milan said. Avalanches in general are unpredictable, he said, and the influence of heat on a glacier “is even more unpredictable.”
In separate comments on Italian public television, Milan called recent temperatures “extremely hot” for the peak. “Obviously, it’s something abnormal.”
The injured were airlifted to several hospitals in the Trentino-Alto Adige and Veneto regions, according to the emergency services.
As in other cases of natural disasters in Italy, prosecutors opened an investigation to see if there were any indications of possible wrongdoing related to the avalanche.