Two young children were among eight people pulled alive Friday from the ruins of an Italian mountain hotel, nearly two days after it was buried under a devastating avalanche.
The rescues raised hopes of finding more survivors with efforts under way to locate between 17 and 24 others thought to have been in the hotel when the avalanche struck on Wednesday afternoon.
Evacuated by helicopter, the rescued survivors were taken to hospitals in the cities of Pescara and Aquila. Some were being treated for hypothermia but no-one was in a serious condition, officials said.
They were pulled out after more than 40 hours under the snow-covered rubble of the Hotel Rigopiano, a three-storey spa hotel on the eastern lower slops of Monte Gran Sasso, the highest peak in central Italy.
Marco Bini, an officer with the mountain rescue wing of the GDF financial police, told AFP the survivors seemed to have been able to light fires to keep themselves warm as temperatures plummeted at 1,200 metres altitude.
"We saw smoke, there were a few small fires in the rubble, and where there is fire there is air so we started to dig."
'Like they were reborn'
He said six people had been found together in an air pocket, including a mother and child. "They were all in reasonable health, if very cold."
"The fire will have been using up the oxygen so we were lucky to find them."
With 15 GDF rescuers and firefighters digging, the survivors could hear their efforts and knew help was on its way, Bini said.
"Their faces said it all, it was like they had been reborn.
"After all the work we are overjoyed to have found them alive."
A video released by firefighters showed a young child, apparently a boy of about six, being pulled out of a vertical tunnel in the snow. He seemed to be in good condition as firemen mussed his hair.
"More diggers are arriving on the site now. We studied a plan of the layout of the hotel but after the avalanche it wasn't clear what was where," he told AFP, saying the search would continue.
"We hope there are other pockets of air, and the snow will have prevented anyone inside from getting too cold, it isolates like an igloo."
At least 17 still missing
More than 25 people, including several children, were thought to have been in the hotel when it was hit by a massive wall of snow.
Revised estimates on Friday suggested the total could be as high as 34, among them 20 to 22 guests, seven or eight staff members and an unknown number of casual visitors to the four-star hotel.
Taking into account the two bodies found in the early hours of Thursday when rescuers first reached the site, that would leave a minimum of 17 and a maximum of 24 people left under the ruins.
Most of the guests were thought to have been in or around the hotel's entrance when the avalanche struck late Wednesday afternoon.
They had been waiting for transport to take them home after earthquakes in the region earlier in the day.
Agonisingly slow progress
Scores of mountain police, firefighters and other emergency personnel were deployed at the hotel.
Progress was agonisingly slow, with rescuers wary of triggering further movements in the snow piled up on top of the masonry that could endanger anyone still clinging to life under the rubble.
Lorenzo Gagliardi, one of the first mountain police officers to arrive on Thursday morning, had earlier recounted the apocalyptic scene he found there in an interview with AFPTV.
Two men who had been outside the hotel were found alive in their car but two other people located under the ruins could not be saved.
Gagliardi and his colleagues had trekked for more than eight kilometres (nearly five miles) through two-metre-high snow to reach the hotel around 4:00 am on Thursday.
There they found a car with its engine running with survivors Giampiero Parete and Fabio Salzetta inside.
Parete, a 38-year-old chef, told the rescuers that his wife, son and daughter were in the hotel.
"We were ready to leave at 2:00 pm. We were in the foyer with our bags, we'd paid the bill and were waiting for a snowplough to clear the road," he reporters after treatment for hypothermia.
"My wife told me she had a headache so I went to the car to get some pills for her.
"As soon as I got out I felt this wind and then this deafening noise of trees cracking, trunks cascading down the hillside.
"Then the hotel collapsed under this enormous wave of snow and half the mountain. My car was the only thing that escaped, by a few centimetres."
The avalanche followed four earthquakes of more than five magnitude in the space of four hours earlier on Wednesday.
The national civil protection agency confirmed two more deaths as a result of the quake, taking the total to five, including the two at the hotel.
25 feared dead as avalanche turns Italian hotel into 'coffin'
Rescuers have vowed to keep looking for survivors of a devastating avalanche that buried an Italian mountain hotel, as they begin a second day of searching.
At least 25 people, including several children, were feared dead after a barrage of snow hit the Hotel Rigopiano on Wednesday afternoon, ripping the three-storey building from its foundations and moving it ten metres (11 yards).
Rescue work continued Thursday night but the prospects of anyone being rescued alive looked bleak, with search efforts hampered by heavy snow that blocked access roads to the remote site until the early hours of the morning after the avalanche hit.
"We're holding on to hope that there are survivors inside," Deputy Interior Minister Filippo Bubbico told reporters Thursday in the town of Penne, where a camp for rescue workers has been set up.
"Firefighters and alpine rescuers are working tirelessly and now the army is doing everything to improve access to the route," he said.
Special army mountain rescue teams were seen riding in vehicles with caterpillar tracks.
"A small avalanche has created a wall of snow across the path to the hotel, we are heading up there now to knock it down," said army Major Nicola Cappozolo.
"As long as there is hope of finding survivors we'll be there"
Two bodies have been extracted from the rubble and two survivors suffering from hypothermiataken to hospital.
Italian broadcasters showed images of piles of masonry and rubble in the entrance area of what they dubbed a "coffin hotel".
Wife and children missing
The region was hit by four seismic shocks measuring above five magnitude in the space of four hours on Wednesday. Quake experts said the tremors almost certainly triggered the snowslide.
The hotel's guests had been assembled on the ground floor awaiting an evacuation following the quakes that was delayed by snow-blocked roads when the avalanche struck.
Local officials confirmed two guests who were not inside when the avalanche hit had been rescued.
One of them, identified as Giampiero Parete, 38, was quoted by friends in Italian media as saying his wife and two children, a girl aged six and a boy aged eight, had been inside the hotel.
Officials said there had been between 20 and 22 guests staying and seven or eight staff on duty at the hotel on the eastern lower slopes of the Gran Sasso mountain. It was unclear if there were any additional people in the hotel.
Fears for some local families
The hotel, a four-star establishment with its own spa and indoor pool, was located at an altitude of 1,200 metres (3,900 feet) around 90 kilometres (55 miles) east of the epicentres of Wednesday's earthquakes. They were also centred near Amatrice, the town devastated in an August quake in which nearly 300 people died.
The quakes affected an area that straddles the regions of Lazio, Marche and Abruzzo, home to many remote mountain hamlets.
Although many residents were evacuated from their homes after last year's quakes, there were fears for families who decided to stay and are now cut off.
Schools in the affected region have been closed until next week to allow structural safety checks to be carried out.
Italy straddles the Eurasian and African tectonic plates, making it vulnerable to seismic activity when they move.
Since the Amatrice disaster, there have been nine shocks measuring more than a five magnitude and a total of 47,000 registered aftershocks.