ROME — A large chunk of Alpine glacier broke loose on Sunday afternoon and thundered down a mountainside in Italy, sending ice, snow and rock into hikers on a popular hiking trail at the summit, killing at least six and injuring eight, authorities said.
It could not be immediately determined how many hikers were in the area or if any were missing, said Walter Milan, a spokesman for the national alpine rescue corps, who gave the number of dead and injured.
Rescuers checked license plates in the parking lot as part of patrols to determine how many people might be missing, a process that could take hours, Milan said over the phone.
“We saw dead (people) and huge chunks of ice and boulders,” exhausted-looking rescuer Luigi Felicetti told Italian state television.
Nationalities or ages of the dead are not immediately available, Milan said. Of the eight survivors who were hospitalized, two were in serious condition, the emergency services said.
The fast-moving avalanche “came down with a roar that could be heard a great distance away,” local online media site ildolomiti.it said.
Earlier, the National Alpine and Cave Rescue Corps tweeted that at least five helicopters and rescue dogs were involved in the search of the affected area of the Marmolada peak.
The SUEM dispatch service, based in the nearby Veneto region, said 18 people who were above the area where the ice struck were being evacuated by the Alpine Rescue Corps.
But Milan said some on the slope could potentially come down themselves, including via the summit’s cable car.
SUEM said the avalanche consisted of “a downpour of snow, ice and rock.” The severed section is known as the Serrac or Ice Peaks.
At around 3,300 meters, the Marmolada is the highest peak in the eastern Dolomites and offers 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 route normally used to reach the summit.”
It was not immediately clear what caused the section of ice to detach and fall down the slope of the summit. But the intense heatwave sweeping Italy since late June could be a factor.
“The temperatures of these days have clearly had an impact” on the partial collapse of the glacier, Maurizio Fugatti, the president of the province of Trento, which borders the Marmolada, told Sky TG24 News.
However, Milan stressed that the high heat, which has unusually soared above 10C (50F) on the Marmolada summit in recent days, was just one possible factor in Sunday’s tragedy.
“There are so many factors that could play a role,” said Milan. Avalanches in general are unpredictable, he said, and the impact of heat on a glacier “is even more impossible to predict.”
In separate comments to Italian state television, Milan called recent temperatures “extreme heat” for the peak. “It’s definitely something abnormal.”
According to the rescue services, the injured were flown to several hospitals in the Trentino-Alto Adige and Veneto regions.