Trial to begin five years after Italy’s deadly Hotel Rigopiano avalanche

Victims' families are still waiting for justice as Italy marks the five-year anniversary of a major avalanche in Abruzzo that engulfed a luxury hotel, killing 29 people.

Trial to begin five years after Italy's deadly Hotel Rigopiano avalanche
An aerial view of Hotel Rigopiano the day after the disaster. Photo: Vigili del Fuoco/AFP

The disaster was the deadliest avalanche in Italy in almost 100 years.

On Tuesday victims’ relatives, local residents and representatives of the authorities and emergency services said prayers, read poems and laid flowers outside the remains of the hotel as part of a commemoration day.

“Never again”, read a display showing the portraits of those killed – some working at the Hotel Rigopiano and some simply holidaying there. 

“We have been fighting for five years to give justice to our angels and to ensure that what happened in Rigopiano never happens again”, the victims’ committee said in a note shared with Italian media.

VIDEO: How Italian firefighters reached avalanche survivors

After years of investigations and multiple delays, victims’ families now hope 2022 could be the year those deemed responsible are brought to justice.

30 people will face an array of charges including manslaughter, possible negligence leading to injury and death, and illegal construction.

The defendants include hotel representatives, provincial and regional government officials. mayors, a police chief, and officials from the prefecture, which is responsible for disaster prevention and management, news agency Ansa reports.

The trial begins in Pescara on January 28th.

What happened?

A combination of heavy snowfall and seismic activity in the Abruzzo region is thought to have caused the avalanche. The snow slide weighed 120,000 tonnes and hit the Hotel Rigopiano with a speed of around 100km/h – a force equivalent to 4,000 trucks.

Video: This is Italy's avalanche hotel one week after the disaster
Firefighters at work in the wreckage. Photo: Vigili del Fuoco

The four-storey hotel was ripped from its foundations and collapsed almost entirely, with only the cellars and spa left intact. Many of the victims had been gathered in the hotel lobby awaiting evacuation at the time of the disaster.

When the first rescuers arrived at the scene, they said that the hotel was “no longer there”.

How did the rescue take place?

Alpine rescue crews were mobilized in nearby Farindola almost two hours after the first call to emergency services, with several reports accusing authorities of not taking initial reports seriously enough

The eight-kilometre road to the resort was blocked by about two meters of snow, and was not cleared until a day later. Rescuers instead reached the site on skis, on foot and by helicopter, and used spades to dig through the snow.

Photo: Vigili del Fuoco/AFP 

Hundreds of people from the emergency services, Civil Protection and alpine rescue worked round the clock until all survivors and bodies had been recovered. Volunteers, including a group of asylum seekers, joined the gruelling rescue effort.

Rescue teams later won an award for their use of technology and drones in the search, which helped save time by identifying spots where people might be trapped, by tracking body heat, phone signals and other data.

Photo: Vigili del Fuoco/AFP

Who were the victims?

A total of 29 people died in the avalanche, with autopsies revealing that all but two of them died of impact rather than hypothermia. Coroners said that at least one of the victims, 29-year-old hotel waiter Gabriele D’Angelo, could have survived had he been reached by rescuers within two hours.

The final bodies were not recovered until a week after the snowslide, and the Italian fire service’s head of emergency and rescue said it was “one of the most complex operations we have ever managed.” 

The victims included 18 hotel guests and 11 employees.

A further six people died in connection with the extreme weather in the area in January 2017 when an emergency services helicopter crashed. That number included two of the rescuers who had helped in the Rigopiano search effort.

Who were the survivors?

There were 11 survivors, including two guests who were not inside the hotel when the avalanche hit: the hotel’s maintenance man Fabio Salzetta and chef Giampiero Parete, who had left the building to get headache pills for his wife. 

After two days of rescue efforts in exceptionally harsh conditions, rescuers made contact with a group of six survivors in an air pocket and a mother and her young son were the first to be pulled to safety. One of the officers who reached the group said the survivors “looked like they had been reborn”.

Photo: Vigili del Fuoco/AFP

In total nine people, including four children, were pulled out alive. Parete’s wife, Adriana, and their two children, Gianfilippo, 7, and Ludovica, 6, were among those saved. The family has since written a book about their experience, saying they spent much of the past year struggling to believe they were still alive. 

Two other children, Edoardo, 9, and Samuel, 7, were rescued, though each lost both their parents in the tragedy.

Georgia Galassi, 22, and her boyfriend Vincenzo Forti, 25, survived. Galassi said her first words to the rescuers – “I’m Georgia, and I’m alive” – was the “most beautiful thing I’ve ever said”.

Photo: Guardia di Finanza/AFP

The final two survivors were 34-year-old Giampaolo Matrone and 25-year-old Francesca Bronzi, whose partners died.

Five days after the avalanche, three puppies were found alive under the rubble. The dogs had been born just a few weeks earlier to the hotel’s resident dogs, Lupo (Wolf) and Nuvola (Cloud), who had escaped the quake and found shelter in the nearby village of Farindola.

They became a symbol of hope and comfort amid a tragedy felt all over Italy. 


Italy marks 30-year anniversary of anti-mafia judge murder

Thirty years ago, the Sicilian mafia killed judge Giovanni Falcone with a bomb so powerful it was registered by experts monitoring volcanic tremors from Etna on the other side of the island.

Italy marks 30-year anniversary of anti-mafia judge murder

The explosion, which ripped through a stretch of motorway near Palermo at 5.56 pm on May 23rd 1992, sent shockwaves across Italy, but also signalled the start of the mafia’s decline.

Anti-mafia prosecuting magistrate Falcone, his wife, and three members of his police escort were killed.

The mob used a skateboard to place a 500-kilogram (1,100-pound) charge of TNT and ammonium nitrate in a tunnel under the motorway which linked the airport to the centre of Palermo.

Falcone, driving a white Fiat Croma, was returning from Rome for the weekend.

At a look-out point on the hill above, a mobster nicknamed “The Pig” pressed the remote control button as the judge’s three-car convoy passed.

The blast ripped through the asphalt, shredding bodies and metal, and flinging the lead car several hundred metres.

The three policemen on board were killed instantly.

READ ALSO: Could body found on Italy’s Mount Etna help solve long-standing mafia mystery?

Falcone, whose wife was sitting beside him, had slowed seconds before the explosion and the car slammed into a concrete guard rail.

His chauffeur, who was sitting in the back, survived, as did the three agents in the convoy’s rear.

A “garden of memory” now stands on the site of the attack. Oil from olive trees that grow there is used by Sicilian churches for anointing children during baptisms and confirmations.

‘Mafia massacre’

Falcone posed a real threat to the Cosa Nostra, an organised crime group made famous by “The Godfather” trilogy and which boasted access to the highest levels of Italian power.

It was he who gathered evidence from the first mafia informants for a groundbreaking trial in which hundreds of mobsters were convicted in 1987.

And at the time of the attack, he headed the justice ministry’s criminal affairs department in Rome and was working on a package of anti-mafia laws.

His murder woke the nation up. The Repubblica daily attacked the “mafia massacre” in its headline the next day, with a photo of the famous moustachioed magistrate, while thousands of people in Palermo protested in the streets.

All eyes turned to fellow anti-mafia magistrate Paolo Borsellino, Falcone’s close friend and colleague, who gave an interview at the start of July saying the “extreme danger” he was in would not stop him doing his job.

On July 19th, just 57 days after his friend, Borsellino was also killed in a car bomb attack, along with five members of his escort. Only his driver survived.

Amid national outrage, the state threw everything it had at hunting down Cosa Nostra boss Salvatore (Toto) Riina, who was involved in dozens of murders during a reign of terror lasting over 20 years.

Riina was arrested on January 15th, 1993, in a car in Palermo.

The truth?

The murders of Falcone and Borsellino “in the long term turned out to be a very bad business for Cosa Nostra, whose management team was decapitated by arrests and informants’ confessions”, Vincenzo Ceruso, author of several books on the mafia, told AFP.

Dozens of people have been convicted for their roles in the assassinations.

But Roberto di Bella, now an anti-mafia judge at the Catania juvenile court in Sicily, said that while “the majority of the perpetrators have been tried and convicted”, there remained “a part that is still not clear”.

Survivors insist there are still bits of the puzzle missing and point to Falcone’s belief there could be “possible points of convergence between the leaders of Cosa Nostra and the shadowy centres of power”.

“We still don’t have the truth about who really ordered the murder of Giovanni Falcone, because I don’t believe that ignorant people like Toto Riina could have organised an attack as sophisticated as that in Capaci,” Angelo Corbo, one of the surviving bodyguards, said in a documentary.

He said he was not alone in believing there were “men in suits and ties” among the mobsters.

However, an investigation into possible “hidden orchestrators” of the Capaci attack was thrown out in 2013.

“There is no evidence of the existence of external backers. There is no doubt that these are mafia acts,” author Ceruso said.