Updated at 12:45 p.m. ET
At least 10 survivors, including children, have been found inside the rubble of a ski hotel in central Italy that was engulfed by an avalanche on Wednesday, according to fire officials — and several of them have been safely removed from the remnants of the building.
About 30 people had been in the hotel when the disaster struck. Many still remain missing, Christopher Livesay reports for NPR from Rome, while four others have been confirmed dead. The death toll is expected to rise.
Tourists staying at the hotel had checked out and were waiting for roads to be cleared when an avalanche, possibly triggered by earthquakes on Wednesday, swept over and into the hotel. Two men had been outside the building when the avalanche began. One of them, Giampiero Parete, had gone to his car to pick up medicine for his wife and soon made frantic calls for help, saying his wife and children were trapped inside the resort.
Both men were found alive — but until Friday morning, there had been no sign of life inside the snow-covered resort.
On Friday, rescuers were overheard by The Associated Press saying over the radio that they had found people alive.
Luca Cari, the spokesman for Italy's national firefighting service, told both Reuters and The Associated Press that rescuers found 10 people in the building on Friday. After talking with the trapped people, firefighters and other rescuers began to free them from the snow and debris.
The ANSA news agency says rescue operations proceeded in two stages, with six people being extracted — including two children — and then two more people.
The AP, however, says that Cari reports only a "few" survivors have actually been freed from the building, and rescue operations are ongoing to bring the rest to safety.
The wire service reports that the "incredible" discovery boosted the spirits of rescue crews:
"Video released by rescuers showed a boy, wearing blue snow pants and a matching ski shirt, emerging from the structure and crews mussing his hair in celebration.
"Next was a woman with a long ponytail wearing red snow pants. 'Brava Brava!' the rescuers cheered. The survivors appeared fully alert and walking on their own. Both were helped down to a stretcher for the helicopter ride out."
The rescue was followed by an emotional reunion, according to Italian media. The woman was reportedly the wife of Giampiero Parete, the man who had stepped out to the car for medicine when the avalanche struck and called for help, and the boy was his son.
"Rescuers said the mother indicated her 6-year-old daughter Ludovica was also alive amid the debris nearby and rescue workers immediately set to work to find her, too," the AP reports. "Italian media said Parete and wife and son hugged at Pescara hospital, where the woman and child were taken, apparently in good condition.
From very early on, rescue crews knew that at least some people had survived the initial disaster — a few people buried alive sent text messages, according to reports in Italian media on Thursday. "Italian daily La Repubblica reports that one of those texts read, 'Help, help, we're freezing to death,' " Livesay says.
But rescue operations have been challenging. Those inside the hotel were trapped by 17 feet of snow as well as by the rubble, the AP reports. Walls were collapsed by the force of the avalanche, and entire one wing of the hotel was pushed downhill.
Transport has also been hampered by the narrow, snow-covered roads in the region. The first rescue teams arrived on skis; the next wave, by helicopter. Attempts to reach the region by vehicle have been slow, according to the AP, with snow piled 10 feet high and a 5.5-mile stretch of road able to take only one-way traffic.
"By late Thursday, only 25 vehicles had arrived, along with 135 rescue workers, and civil protection authorities said part of the night was spent trying to widen the road," the AP writes.
Rescuers are also fighting against the clock, Livesay reported earlier. "Chances of survival are waning amid nightfall and plunging temperatures," he says.
Meanwhile, even as rescue operations are ongoing, Italian media and officials are already considering the question of responsibility.
"State prosecutors have launched an investigation to find out if the disaster could have been averted," Livesay reports. "An avalanche warning had already been in effect, so the question is: Why wasn't the hotel evacuated before the avalanche, when it's at the base of a snowy mountain in an area that's prone to earthquakes?"