By FRANCES D’EMILIO
ROME (AP) — Thunderstorms hampered Monday the search for more than a dozen hikers who remained unaccounted for a day after a huge chunk of an Alpine glacier in Italy broke off, sending an avalanche of ice, snow and rocks down the slope. Officials put the known death toll at seven.
“I hope the numbers stop here,” said Veneto Gov. Luca Zaia, whose region in northeast Italy borders the Dolomite mountain range including the Marmolada glacier. He spoke in the resort town of Canazei, where a morgue was set up in the ice rink.
Another regional leader, Maurizio Fugatti, said that by Monday afternoon 14 persons remained unaccounted for: 10 Italians, three from Czechia and one from Austria. “We were contacted by families because these people didn’t return home,’” said Fugatti of the Trentino-Alto Adige Alpine region.
In the mountain’s parking lot, four cars remained whose occupants hadn’t been traced — two cars had plates from Czechia, one from Germany and the fourth from Hungary.
Fugatti raised the possibility that there might be persons whose families don’t know their status since they might be on holiday and only check in with relatives at vacation’s end.
At least three of the dead were Italians, authorities said. Italian news reports said one of the deceased was from Czechia, which is more widely known in English as the Czech Republic.
On Sunday, officials said nine persons were injured, but officials at a news conference Monday in the resort town of Canazei said there were eight persons, including two hospitalized in what they described as “delicate,” grave condition.
Zaia said the hospitalized included two Germans and a 40-year-old patient yet to be identified.
The avalanche came roaring down when dozens of hikers were on excursions, including some of them roped together.
Italian Premier Mario Draghi, flanking the officials after meeting with family members of some of the dead, expressed “the most sincere, affectionate, heartfelt closeness” to the families.
Looking grim, he demanded that action be taken so such a tragedy doesn’t happen again. “This is a drama that certainly has some unpredictability,” Draghi said, echoing several experts who said an avalanche triggered by a glacier’s breakup couldn’t be forecast.
But what happened “’certainly depends on environmental deterioration and the climate situation,” the premier said.
Marmolada glacier has been shrinking for decades, and scientists at the government CNR research center have said it won’t exist within 25-30 years.
“Today, Italy gathers close” around the stricken families, Draghi said. “The government must reflect on what happened and take measures, so that what happens has a very low possibility, or none, of repeating itself.”
The detached portion of glacier was massive, estimated at 200 meters (yards) wide, 80 meters tall and 60 meters deep. Zaia likened the avalanche to an “apartment building (sized) block of ice with debris and Cyclopean masses of rock.”
”I can’t say anything else other than the facts, and the facts tell us that the high temperatures don’t favor these situations,” Zaia told reporters.
Italy is in the grips of a weeks-long heat wave, and Alpine rescuers said that the temperature at the glacier’s altitude last week topped 10 C (50 F) when usually it should over around freezing at this time of year.
Drones were being used to help look for any of the missing as well as verify safety, but even they had to stop operating when thunderstorms lashed the area in late morning.
What caused a pinnacle of the glacier to break off and thunder down the slope at a speed estimated by experts at around 300 kph (nearly 200 mph), wasn’t immediately known.
But high temperatures were widely cited as a likely factor.
Jacopo Gabrieli, a polar sciences researcher at Italy’s state-run CNR research center, noted that the long heat wave, spanning May and June, was the hottest in northern Italy in that period for nearly 20 years.
“It’s absolutely an anomaly,” Gabrieli said in an interview on Italian state TV Monday. Like other experts, he said it would have been impossible to predict when or if a serac — a pinnacle from a glacier’s overhang — could break off, as it did on Sunday.
Operators of rustic shelters along the mountainside said temperatures at the 2,000-meter (6,600 foot) level recently reached 24C (75 F) – unheard of in a place where excursionists go in summer to keep cool.
The glacier, in the Marmolada range, is the largest in the Dolomite mountains in northeastern Italy. People ski on it in the winter. But the glacier has been rapidly melting away over the past decades, with much of its volume gone.
The Mediterranean basin, which includes southern European countries like Italy, has been identified by U.N. experts as a “climate change hot spot,” likely to suffer heat waves and water shortages, among other consequences.
Pope Francis, who has made care of the planet a priority of his papacy, tweeted an invitation to pray for the avalanche victims and their families.
“The tragedies that we are experiencing with climate change must push us to urgently search for new ways that are respectful of persons and nature,” Francis wrote.