FARINDOLA, Italy (AP) — Hopes began to fade Tuesday that any more survivors would be found from a devastating avalanche, as the death toll climbed to 15 and rescue crews were hit with another tragedy nearby: reports of a downed helicopter ferrying an injured skier off the slopes.
Civil protection officials said they were checking an incident involving the helicopter near Campo Felice, a popular ski area in the Apennine Mountains. The ANSA news agency said six people were aboard the helicopter.
The incident was another blow to Central Italy's Abruzzo region, which has been slammed by a series of powerful earthquakes and meters (yards) of snowfall that triggered the Jan. 18 avalanche at the Hotel Rigopiano.
The death toll from the avalanche climbed to 15 on Tuesday with the discovery of more bodies, leaving 14 people still unaccounted for.
Firefighter spokesman Alberto Maiolo said search crews aided by excavators were finally able to penetrate the snow-covered central part of the hotel for the first time — the bar and kitchen area — and found the bodies. He said there were no signs of life.
"Logically, hopes fade as time passes, but we are continuing to search and trying to do it as quickly as possible," he said.
The first funerals were held Tuesday, with crowds gathering under a steady rain outside the hilltop church in Farindola to pay their respects to Alessandro Giancaterino.
The chief waiter, one of the first victims pulled from the rubble, had offered to stay for a double shift on Jan. 18 to spare a colleague from having to make his way to the hotel through the snow, which was two to three meters (six to 10 feet) high in some places.
"He was a great hard worker. He was very professional," said his brother, Massimiliano Giancaterino. "This is the memory that I want to keep of my brother, beyond obviously the private ones that I keep in my heart."
Prosecutors are investigating whether a series of missed communications, underestimations of risks and delays in responding to days of heavy snowfall contributed to the toll from the avalanche. In addition, they are looking into the original construction of the isolated resort and whether it should have been open for business at all in such conditions.
Giancaterino, who is also a former mayor of Farindola, said it was useless to speculate now, while an investigation was just beginning, about whether the tragedy could have been avoided.
"Now it is not the time for hypothesis," he said. "It is the time of pain and above all my thoughts go to the friends and relatives of those who are still missing," he said.
Nine people have been pulled out alive from the rubble, three of whom remained hospitalized in nearby Pescara.