Toll from Italy avalanche climbs to 15 as hopes diminish as crews deal with nearby helicopter crash

Posted at 7:25 AM, Jan 24, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-24 13:03:59-05
Hopes were fading on Tuesday that any more survivors would be found from a devastating avalanche, as the death toll climbed to 15 and rescue crews were hit with another tragedy nearby: an unrelated helicopter crash.

The chopper was ferrying an injured skier off the slopes and six people were thought to be onboard. Poor visibility was hampering efforts by rescue crews to reach the downed helicopter, which had been taking the injured skier from the Campo Felice ski area to the Abruzzo regional capital of L'Aquila, civil protection spokesman Luigi D'Angelo said.
The crash was another blow to central Italy's Abruzzo region, which has been slammed by a series of powerful earthquakes and heavy snowfall that triggered the Jan. 18 avalanche at the Hotel Rigopiano.
The death toll from the avalanche climbed to 15 on Tuesday with the discovery of a half-dozen more bodies, leaving 14 people still unaccounted for. Nine people previously had been pulled out alive from the rubble, three of whom remained hospitalized in nearby Pescara.
Firefighters' spokesman Alberto Maiolo said that search crews aided by excavators were finally able to penetrate the snow-covered central part of the hotel for the first time, finding the bodies in the bar and kitchen area. He said there were no signs of life.
"Logically, hopes fade as time passes, but we are continuing to search and trying to do it as quickly as possible," he said.
The first funerals were held Tuesday, with crowds gathering under a steady rain outside the hilltop church in Farindola to pay their respects to Alessandro Giancaterino.
The chief waiter, one of the first victims pulled from the rubble, 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, which was two to three meters (six to 10 feet) high in some places.
"He was a great hard worker. He was very professional," said his brother, Massimiliano Giancaterino. "This is the memory that I want to keep of my brother, beyond obviously the private ones that I keep in my heart."
Prosecutors are investigating 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. In addition, they are looking into the original construction of the isolated resort and whether it should have been open for business at all in such conditions.
Giancaterino, who is also a former mayor of Farindola, said it was useless to speculate now, while an investigation was just beginning, about whether the tragedy could have been avoided.
"Now it is not the time for hypothesis," he said. "It is the time of pain and above all my thoughts go to the friends and relatives of those who are still missing," he said.