At least 14 people died and several others were seriously injured on Sunday when a cable car linking Italy's Lake Maggiore with a nearby mountain in the Alps plunged 20 meters to the ground, local officials and rescuers said.
The Stresa-Mottarone cable car takes tourists and locals from the town on Lake Maggiore, almost 1,400 meters above sea level to the top of the Mottarone mountain in 20 minutes.
"We are devastated, in pain," Marcella Severino, Stresa's mayor told national broadcaster RAI, while Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi voiced his condolences to the families of the victims, "with a special thought" for the injured children.
The accident happened as the cable car was travelling up the mountain, with the cabin dropping some 20 meters and rolling several times down the steep slopes before it was stopped by trees, Severino said.
People hiking on the mountain heard a loud hiss just before the crash, she said, adding that it was believed to have been caused by one of the cables breaking.
A call came just after midday (1000 GMT), Italy's alpine rescue service said, adding that the cable car was "crumpled" in the woods and two children had been taken by helicopter to a pediatric hospital in the nearby city of Turin.
Severino told SKY television that some of the victims had been found trapped inside the car, with others thrown out into the woods. Another injured person, an adult, had been also been taken to hospital by helicopter, she added.
Coroners had started identifying the victims, who included foreign nationals, she said, without giving further details.
The toll could rise further from the accident in Stresa, a resort town on the shores of Lake Maggiore in Italy's Piedmont region, the Alpine rescue service said on Twitter.
'Hard to believe'
The Stresa-Mottarone lift had only recently re-opened following the gradual lifting of coronavirus restrictions.
The cable car service first opened in August 1970 after almost three years of works to replace a cog railway, its website said.
The dual cable system is split into two sections, just over two kilometers between Stresa and Alpino and another three kilometers between Alpino and Mottarone. It consists of two cars - in alternate directions - with each one carrying up to 40 passengers, it added.
Severino said that important maintenance works, including changing the cables, had been carried out in recent years.
"All of this is hard to believe," she said.
The 20-minute cable car ride, popular with tourists, links Stresa with the 1,500-meter (4,900-foot) summit of the Mottarone mountain, and offers spectacular views of the Alps.
The ministry of infrastructure said in a statement that the accident occurred around 12:30 pm (1030 GMT) as the cabin, with 11 people aboard, was about 100 meters (yards) from the summit.
The ministry said the accident appeared to have been caused by a ruptured cable near the top of the route.
Regional president Alberto Cirio said he was "devastated" at what he termed "an enormous tragedy which takes our breath away."
Giovanni Toti, president of the neighboring region of Liguria, noted that the tragedy had occurred just as Italy was emerging from months of Covid-related restrictions. Sunday, he said, was supposed to have been "a day of re-opening rich in hope."
European Council President Charles Michel offered a tweet in Italian expressing his "most sincere condolences to the families and friends who have lost a loved one in this tragic accident."
Fire service images showed debris from the white and red cabin in a steep wooded area where access appeared difficult.
The cable car was closed between 2014 and 2016 for maintenance work.
Europe has seen a number of similar cable car accidents over the past 50 years.
Nine German skiers were killed on September 5, 2005, when an 800 kilo (1,760 lb) concrete block fell from a helicopter transporting it near the popular Austrian Tyrol resort of Soelden onto a cable carrying their cabin.
In February 1998, a low-flying US military jet severed a cable at Cavalese, a ski resort in Italy's Dolomites, killing 20 people.
Cavalese was also the scene of a 1976 disaster when a steel supporting cable broke, killing 42 people.