ROME – After an avalanche in northern Italy left several dead over the weekend, regional church leaders lamented the tragedy and voiced their closeness to the victims and their families.

In a statement Monday, July 4, the day after the accident, Archbishop Lauro Tisi of the Trento Diocese and Bishop Renato Marangoni of Belluno said, “Ice has broken the lives of many people, too many.”

“Our closeness and our deepest condolences go to the victims and to their families,” they said in a joint statement. “Faced with this unprecedented tragedy, only the strength of the fraternal embrace remains, capable of bringing a little light into the darkness that overwhelms us all at this hour.”

At least 13 people are still unaccounted for and seven people are known to have been killed on Sunday, after the collapse of a chunk of glacier ice in northeastern Italy caused an avalanche that tumbled across a popular hiking trail on the Alpine peak Marmolada, the highest mountain of the Dolomites.

The victims and those who are missing come from all over the world, including Italy, Czechia, and Austria.

A large glacier on Marmolada, called the “Queen of the Dolomites,” is the largest glacier in the Dolomites and is located in the Trentino region.

The portion of the glacier that collapsed is located near Punta Rocca, along a hiking route taken by many trekkers to reach the peak’s summit. The ice fell a day after local temperatures reached a record high of 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

It has long been a popular skiing and hiking area, depending on the season, however, in recent years the ice has been melting away.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who visited the site of the accident Monday, blamed the incident on climate change, saying that while unforeseen factors were involved, the tragedy also “depends on the deterioration of the environment and the climate situation.”

Speaking to Italian newspaper Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops, Father Mario Bravin of Sacred Heart parish in Canazei, the village below where the avalanche happened, offered a glimpse of initial rescue efforts.

Bravin, who is also a firefighter – identified by Avvenire as the deputy valley inspector of the permanent fire brigade in the area – said initial rescue efforts in the first hours after the incident were coordinated with the Alpine Rescue and with a team of rescue dogs.

A flag was planted where the dogs stopped and began barking. Rescuers then started to dig, chipping away at the ice and gravel, which Bravin said was like “concrete,” until late in the day.

After recovering some wounded and the bodies of several of the deceased under “the first layer of ice,” rescuers were forced to leave because of the dangerous conditions, as the area is still precarious and more ice “can still fall down.”

The firefighters in the valley, Bravin said, are “well prepared and trained,” with constant updates to their training process.

He also praised the emotional support given by the firefighters, saying that while they are not psychologists, they know how to handle grief in these situations, and were prepared to help make funeral arrangements and to offer words of comfort to victims and their families.

“This is truly a tragedy; no one expected such a collapse. We all know that the temperatures are rising, but the trail was very low, and it wasn’t thought that there could already be such a huge amount of ice,” he said.

Referring to conversations he and other firefighters had with family members of the victims, Bravin said, “Even the firefighters never get used to pain, to being in front of family members who are suffering, desperate. It touches your heart.”

In addition to his contribution to rescue efforts, Bravin also organized and presided over a moment of prayer for the victims Monday, saying it was “an entrustment of the victims to the Lord, a prayer for family members, suddenly faced with a tragedy. This is a great tragedy.”

In another sign of closeness to the deceased and their families, Tisi – with the agreement of the mayor of the city, Giovanni Bernard, and the president of the Province of Trento, Maurizio Fugatti – will preside over a special Mass on July 9 in Canazei.

Both Tisi, who is participating in a three-day pastoral session with diocesan clergy, and Marangoni maintained contact with Bravin throughout the day to receive updates on the status of rescue efforts and how family members were handling the tragedy.

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