By Giulia Segreti, Flavio Lo Scalzo and Alex Fraser
STRESA, Italy (Reuters) -At least 14 people, including five Israelis, died and a child was seriously injured on Sunday when a cable car linking Italy's Lake Maggiore with a nearby mountain plunged to the ground, officials and rescuers said.
The Stresa-Mottarone cable car takes tourists and locals from the town on Lake Maggiore, almost 1,400 metres above sea level to the top of the Mottarone mountain in 20 minutes.
Israel's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it had been informed by Italian authorities that five of its nationals were among the dead and one Israeli was in a critical condition.
"We are devastated, in pain," Marcella Severino, Stresa's mayor told broadcaster RAI, while Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi voiced his condolences to the families of the victims.
The cable car was travelling up the mountain when the cabin plummeted some 20 metres to the ground and rolled down the steep slope several times before it was stopped by trees, Severino said.
People hiking nearby heard a loud hiss just before the crash, she said, adding that the accident was believed to have been caused by one of the cables breaking.
Severino said that some of the victims had been found trapped inside the car, with others thrown into the woods.
Coroners had started identifying the victims, who included foreign nationals, she said, without giving further details.
Italy's alpine rescue service said a call had first come just after midday (1000 GMT), adding that the cable car was lying "crumpled" in the woods and two children were taken by helicopter to a paediatric hospital in the nearby city of Turin.
The elder of the two, who was believed to be between 9 and 10, died after suffering two cardiac arrests, the hospital said.
Director General Giovanni La Valle said the hospital did not have personal data for the two children and that nobody had been in contact with the hospital for them, indicating that other family members could have been involved in the accident.
The younger child, estimated to be 5 years old, was conscious on arrival and was undergoing surgery to stabilise multiple fractures, La Valle said.
'HARD TO BELIEVE'
The Stresa-Mottarone lift had only recently re-opened following the gradual lifting of coronavirus restrictions.
"It's a terrible moment for me and for our community and I think also for the whole of Italy. Especially now that we were just beginning to restart (after the pandemic)," Severino said.
The Mottarone peak is popular among tourists because of its panoramic views on Lake Maggiore and its picturesque islands as well as the vista of the surrounding Alps.
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 kilometres between Stresa and Alpino and another three kilometres between Alpino and Mottarone. It consist 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," the mayor said.
(Reporting by Giulia Segreti; Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle and Alexander Smith)