COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — Rescue workers used shovels, excavators, search dogs and powerful lamps to dig through tons of snow in total darkness Saturday after an avalanche smashed into houses on the remote Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, killing one man and sending nine other people to the hospital.
The avalanche tumbled down Saturday about 11 a.m. from Sukkertoppen Mountain into Longyearbyen, the main settlement on Svalbard, shoving houses off their foundations, flipping cars and burying people under meters (yards) of snow.
About 100 emergency workers and volunteers, packed in warm clothes because of the below-freezing temperatures, rushed to the scene, and at least one woman was reported to have been dug out of the snow.
During the winter, the remote archipelago, which lies midway between continental Norway and the North Pole, plunges into darkness. The sun does not show above the horizon from late November to mid-February.
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“This is a very serious situation and we already have a tragic outcome,” Svalbard Governor Kjerstin Askholt told Norwegian broadcaster NRK. “We still have no complete overview.”
One local man in his 40s died and nine other people were hospitalized, including four children, Longyearbyen hospital spokesman Per-Christian Johansen told The Associated Press. He said two of the children and one adult were in serious condition.
In all, 10 houses were hit by the avalanche and dozens of other houses at the foot of Sukkertoppen were evacuated as a precaution, said the governor’s spokeswoman, Tone Hertzberg.
The avalanche let loose a day after a huge storm hit the archipelago on Friday night — one that the local paper called the worst in 30 years, with winds up to 95 kph (60 mph). Hertzberg said “it would be logical” to assume the avalanche was connected to the storm.
Frank Jakobsen, a resident of Longyearbyen, told the Svalbardposten daily the avalanche was so powerful it had moved several houses and had poured tons of snow into others in the town of 2,000 people.
He saw people carrying out 44-year-old Anne Kristin Jakobsen, who had been buried alive under the snow but had banged on a microwave oven to get the attention of rescue workers, according to the daily. Jakobsen was among those hospitalized.
Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg wrote on Twitter that authorities were following the situation closely and “all available resources are mobilized.” Extra medical staff were sent in from Tromsoe on the Norwegian mainland.
The fierce storm Friday night also ripped off the roof of a school in Longyearbyen, sending it flying onto a soccer field. It forced the airport there to close Friday but by Saturday afternoon it had reopened.
Svalbard, which sits more than 800 kilometers (500 miles) north of the Norwegian mainland, is known for its stunning snow-covered mountains, fjords and glaciers. The archipelago has about 2,600 residents.