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Italy Avalanche Death Toll Reaches 15 As Prospects Of Finding More Survivors Dim

An excavator works at the site of the avalanche-buried Hotel Rigopiano, near Farindola, Italy.

Hopes are dwindling that anyone trapped in an avalanche-buried ski resort could still be alive after six days, as multiple news reports said the death toll has risen to at least 15.

Rescue workers facing "extreme conditions" continue to dig through the rubble, searching for the 14 people still said to be missing.

Also in mountainous central Italy, a emergency helicopter crashed into the side of a mountain, and the Italian news agency ANSA reports that six people were killed.

The helicopter was carrying an injured person from the Campo Felice ski resort and "came down from a height of around 600 metres," the agency added. It is not clear what caused the chopper to crash, and in photos from the site it appears to be completely destroyed.

Wednesday's avalanche that buried the Hotel Rigopiano was likely triggered by a series of earthquakes in the area, as The Two-Way reported. ANSA says "eleven survived the disaster, including nine who were pulled out of the ruins by search teams." The first funerals began today, including a service for the hotel headwaiter Alessandro Giancaterino.

Giancaterino "had offered to stay for a double shift on Jan. 18 to spare a colleague from having to make his way to the hotel through the snow," according to The Associated Press.

The rescuers found three puppies amid the ruins of the buried hotel yesterday — but as fire services spokesman Luca Cari told Deutsche Welle, that doesn't mean raised hopes for efforts to find human survivors.

"We're happy to have saved them, and these are important moments in a dramatic situation," he said. "But I don't think there's much correlation with finding other people."

Now, efforts are focused on breaking through a concrete wall to the hotel bar, hoping to find an air pocket where trapped people might have survived, according to the BBC.

Meanwhile, prosecutors are beginning to investigate "whether a series of missed communications, underestimations of risks and delays in responding to days of heavy snowfall contributed to the toll from the avalanche," the AP reports.

They're looking at phone calls to emergency dispatchers in particular, as Christopher Livesay in Rome tells our Newscast unit. The dispatchers "appear to have ignored early cries for help."

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