ROME (AP) — A large stretch of Alpine glacier broke loose Sunday afternoon and roared down a mountainside in Italy, slamming ice, snow and rocks onto hikers on a popular summit trail, killing at least six and injuring eight, authorities said.
It was not immediately possible to determine how many hikers there were in the area or if any were still missing, said Walter Milan, a spokesman for the Alps National Rescue Corps that provided the death toll.
Rescuers checked license plates in the parking lot as part of checks to determine how many people could be missing, a process that could take hours, Milan said by phone.
“We saw dead (people) and huge chunks of ice, rock,” exhausted-looking rescuer Luigi Felicetti told Italian state TV.
Nationalities or ages of the dead were not immediately available, Milan said. Of the eight survivors hospitalized, two were in serious condition, emergency services said.
The fast-moving avalanche “came down with a roar that could be heard from a great distance,” local online media site ildolomiti.it said.
Earlier, the National Alpine and Cave Rescue Corps tweeted that the search of the affected area of the Marmolada peak involved at least five helicopters and rescue dogs.
The SUEM dispatch service, which is based in the nearby Veneto region, said 18 people who were above the area where the ice hit would be evacuated by the Alpine rescue corps.
But Milan said some on the slope may be able to get down on their own, including using the peak’s funicular.
SUEM said the avalanche consisted of “crashed snow, ice and rock.” The freestanding portion is known as a serrac or ice peak.
Marmolada, with an elevation of about 3,300 meters (about 11,000 feet), 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 chunk of ice to break loose and descend the slope of the summit. But the intense heat wave that has gripped Italy since late June could be a factor.
“The temperatures of these days clearly influenced” the partial collapse of the glacier, Maurizio Fugatti, the president of the province of Trento, which borders Marmolada, told Sky TG24 news.
But Milan stressed that the high heat, which has risen unusually above 10 C (50 F) at Marmolada’s peak in recent days, was just one possible factor in Sunday’s tragedy.
“There are so many factors that can come into play,” Milan said. Avalanches in general are unpredictable, he said, and the influence of heat on a glacier “is even more impossible to predict.”
In separate comments to Italian state television, Milan called the recent temperatures “extreme heat” before the peak. “It’s clearly something abnormal.”
The injured were flown to several hospitals in the Trentino-Alto Adige and Veneto regions, according to rescue services.