Emergency crews digging into an avalanche-slammed hotel were cheered Monday by the discovery of three puppies who had survived for days under tons of snow—giving them new hope for the 23 people still missing in the disaster, the AP reports. The first human survivors, meanwhile, were released from the hospital as questions intensified into whether Italian authorities underestimated the risks facing the snowbound resort in the hours before a deadly avalanche. Five days after up to 60,000 tons of snow, rocks, and uprooted trees plowed into the Hotel Rigopiano in central Italy, rescue crews were still digging by hand or with shovels and chainsaws in hopes of finding alive some of the 23 people still buried. An excavator reached the site, northeast of Rome, to speed up the search.
Emergency crews have been hoping that the missing may have found air pockets under the debris, and that the snow itself had insulated them from the frigid temperatures. So far nine people have been rescued from the Hotel Rigopiano and six people have died. More than two days have passed since anyone has been pulled out alive from the hotel, and rescue crews were still trying to recover the body of the sixth known victim from the rubble. Conditions at the site were deteriorating, with the feet of heavy snow turning to ice. The investigation intensified, meanwhile, into whether local government officials underestimated the threat facing the hotel, which was already covered with six feet of snow, had no phone service, and had dwindling gas supplies when a series of earthquakes rocked central Italy on the morning of Jan. 18. (Read more avalanche stories.)