Italian alps glacier collapse: At least seven dead as search continues for missing hikers

ITV News Correspondent Ian Woods reports on the emergency rescue efforts deployed in response to several people dying after a huge chunk of an Alpine glacier in Italy broke off

Thunderstorms have hampered the search for more than a dozen hikers who remain unaccounted for as seven people were confirmed to have been killed in Italy after a large chunk of an Alpine glacier broke off.

Nine people were injured when the avalanche was unleashed from the Marmolada glacier on Sunday afternoon when dozens of hikers were on excursions, some of them roped together.

RAI state TV reported from the scene that 15 people were unaccounted for.

A thunderstorm reportedly forced the helicopter flying the Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi to the stricken area to be diverted.

According to media reports, those feared missing include some Italians, three Romanians, one with French nationality, another from Austria, and four from Czechia.

The glacier in the Marmolada range of Italy's Alps near Trento from which a large chunk broke loose. Credit: Autonomous Province of Trento via AP

An ice rink in the Dolomite mountain resort town of Canazei was serving as a makeshift morgue to identify those who had died following the tragedy. At least four bodies brought to the ice rink had been identified by Monday afternoon. RAI said three of those identified were Italians, including an experienced Alpine guide who was leading a group of hikers.

Another was a hiker whose relatives said he had just sent a selfie of himself from the slope shortly before the avalanche barreled down.

The glacier, in the Marmolada range, is the largest in the Dolomite mountains in northeastern Italy and people ski there in the winter. But the glacier has been rapidly melting away in recent years. Experts at Italy’s state-run CNR research centre, which has a polar sciences institute, says the glacier won't exist anymore in the next 25-30 years and most of its volume is already gone.

The Mediterranean basin, shared by southern Europe, the Middle East and northern Africa, has been identified by UN experts as a “climate change hot spot,” likely to suffer heat waves and water shortages, among other consequences.

The fast-moving avalanche "came down with a roar the could be heard at great distance,'' local online media site said.

Sixteen cars remained unclaimed in the area’s parking lot, and authorities sought to track down occupants through license plates.

It was unclear how many of the cars might have belonged to the already identified victims or to the injured, all of whom were flown by helicopters on Sunday to hospitals.

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SUEM said the avalanche consisted of a “pouring down of snow, ice and rock.” The detached section is know as a serac, or pinnacle of ice. Marmolada, towering about 3,300 meters (about 11,000 feet), is the highest peak in the eastern Dolomites, offering spectacular views of other Alpine peaks. The Alpine rescue service said in a tweet that the segment broke off near Punta Rocca (Rock Point), “along the itinerary normally used to reach the peak.” It wasn't immediately clear what caused the section of ice to break away and rush down the peak's slope. But the intense heat wave gripping Italy since late June could be a factor. “The temperatures of these days clearly had influence” on the glacier's partial collapse, Maurizio Fugatti, the president of Trento Province, which borders Marmolada, told Sky TG24 news. But Mr Milan stressed that high heat, which soared unusually above 10 C (50 F) on Marmolada's peak in recent days, was only one possible factor in Sunday's tragedy. “There are so many factors that could be involved,'' Mr Milan said. Avalanches in general aren't predictable, he said, and heat's influence on a glacier “is even more impossible to predict.” In separate comments to Italian state television, Mr Milan called the recent temperatures “extreme heat” for the peak. “Clearly it's something abnormal.” The injured were flown to several hospitals in the regions of Trentino-Alto Adige and Veneto, according to rescue services.