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At least 6 dead after Italian glacier collapses, sends debris into hikers on popular trail

A large chunk of Alpine glacier broke loose Sunday afternoon and slid down a mountainside in Italy, sending ice, snow and rock slamming into hikers on a popular trail on the peak killing at least six and injuring nine, authorities said.

Rescue service spokesperson says Italy's recent heat wave could have been a factor in collapse

Mountain rescue teams are seen in the Alps of Marmolada, Italy, after a glacier collapsed on Sunday, killing several hikers on a popular trail. (Alpine Mountain Rescue/Reuters)

A large chunk of Alpine glacier broke loose Sunday afternoon and slid down a mountainside in Italy, sending ice, snow and rock slamming into hikers on a popular trail on the peak killing at least six and injuring nine, authorities said.

A local Civil Protection official, Gianpaolo Bottacin, told Italian news agency ANSA that the situation was "evolving" and that there could be as many as 15 people missing.

In the late evening, the National Alpine and Cave Rescue Corps tweeted a phone number for family or friends to call if someone failed to return from an excursion to the glacier.

Rescuers were checking licence plates in the parking lot as part of checks to determine how many people might be unaccounted for, a process that could take hours, Milan said by telephone.

"We saw dead (people) and enormous chunks of ice, rock," exhausted-looking rescuer Luigi Felicetti told Italian state TV. 

Nationalities or ages of the dead weren't immediately available, said Walter Milan, a spokesperson for the national Alpine rescue corps.

Of the hospitalized survivors, two were in grave condition, emergency dispatch services said.

This image, released on Sunday by Italy's National Alpine and Cave Rescue Corps, shows the glacier in Italy's Alps. Rescuers say a large chunk of the glacier broke loose, sending snow and rocks into hikers. (Corpo Nazionale Soccorso Alpino e Speleologico/The Associated Press)

The fast-moving avalanche "came down with a roar," local online media site ildolomiti.it said.

Search paused

Aided by helicopters and dogs, the search for victims or missing people was halted for the night on Sunday while rescuers evaluated the risk that more of the glacier could break off, rescuer Walter Cainelli told state television.

Rescuers said blocks of ice were continuing to tumble down. In early evening, a light rain began to fall.

The SUEM dispatch service, which is based in the nearby Veneto region, said 18 people who were above the area where the ice struck would be evacuated by the Alpine rescue corps.

Some of those making the trek in the area where the avalanche barreled through were tied together by rope, according to local emergency services.

Milan said earlier in the day that some of the hikers might be able to get down by themselves, including by using the peak's cable car.

The injured were flown to several hospitals in the regions of Trentino-Alto Adige and Veneto, according to rescue services.

The SUEM dispatch service, which is based in the nearby Veneto region, said the avalanche consisted of a "pouring down of snow, ice and rock." The detached section is know as a serrac, or pinnacle of ice.

Glacier melting rapidly in recent years

The glacier, in the Marmolada range, is the largest in the Dolomite mountains in northeastern Italy and people ski there in the winter. But the glacier has been rapidly melting away in recent years.

The Alpine rescue service said in a tweet that the segment broke off near Punta Rocca (Rock Point), "along the itinerary normally used to reach the peak."

Experts at Italy's state-run CNR research centre, which has a polar sciences institute, said the glacier won't exist anymore in the next 25-30 years and much of its volume is already gone.

The Mediterranean basin, shared by southern Europe, the Middle East and northern Africa, has been identified by UN experts as a "climate change hot spot," likely to suffer heat waves and water shortages, among other consequences.

Rescue crews used helicopters and dogs to search for hikers caught up in the glacier's collapse on Sunday. This screenshot, taken from footage released by rescuers, shows a view of the glacier. (Alpine Mountain Rescue/Reuters)

"The temperatures of these days clearly had influence" on the glacier's partial collapse, Maurizio Fugatti, the president of Trento Province, which borders Marmolada, told Sky TG24 news.

But Milan stressed that high heat, which soared unusually above 10 C on Marmolada's peak in recent days, was only one possible factor in Sunday's tragedy.

"There are so many factors that could be involved," Milan said. Avalanches in general aren't predictable, he said, and heat's influence on a glacier "is even more impossible to predict."

In separate comments to Italian state television, Milan called the recent temperatures "extreme heat" for the peak. "Clearly it's something abnormal."

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