Italian politicians today continued to trade accusations regarding responsibility for the delays in the country's earthquake relief operation and fears mounted that the final death toll from Sunday's quake in southern Italy could be far higher than currently estimated.
Army Gen. Antonio Tamburrino, in charge of rescue operations, told journalists today his impression was that "at the end, in the province of Avellino alone, we will count more than 10,000 dead."
The government estimates that in the four provinces hit by the quake, 2,843 are dead and 1,357 missing. But journalists and rescue workers who have visited the zone say thousands of people may still be buried beneath and rubble of scores of isolated mountain towns and believe the Interior Ministry may be deliberately minimizing the casualty figures.
Criticism of the government's failure to organize a rapid and efficient rescue and relief effort was voiced yesterday by Italian President Sandro Pertini, and Interior Minister Virginio Rognoni, whose ministry is responsible for all such operations, immediately resigned.
The resignation was rejected today, however, by Prime Minister Arnaldo Forlani, who praised Rognoni's "responsibility and dedication." Forlani said, "This is not a time for fueling polemics. Our only duty is to work to reduce as much as possible the terrible burden of suffering and ruin."
But the recriminations have not been stilled. "Perhaps if the extent of the tragedy had been made known from the start, more assistance would have been immediately available and more lives could have been saved," a local official said. He said that many of the dead appear to have been buried alive and to have died from dehydration and terror rather than from physical injuries.
Top government officials have denied opposition charges of criminal negligence and delays, but they have admitted that first reports gave a misleading picture of the disaster. The Interior Ministry yesterday removed the prefect of Avellino, Attilio lo Bafalo, from office.
Communist Party leaders castigated the government for what they termed an "unacceptable delay" in recognizing the quake's extent and an ensuing "state of paralysis."
In parliament today, spokesmen for the Radicals and the neofascists called for the resignation of the Army chiefs of staff and of socialist Defense Minister Lelio Lagorio. There was also strong criticism from the press, from scientists and from urban planners.
The area of the earthquake was a highly active seismic zone. But despite various warnings by geologists and just two years ago by the National Research Council, there were no up-to-date emergency plans nor were antiseismic specifications being adhered to in building in the area. Furthermore, as President Pertini noted in his speech last night, the enabling regulations for a 1979 civil defense law had never been approved by parliament.
In the government's defense it must be pointed out that many of the worst hit of the 97 towns and villages affected by the quake are located in foggy, isolated mountain areas accessible only by narrow, winding roads. Moreover, the 10,000-square-mile area hit by the quake is almost 9 percent of Italy's territory and is far vaster than that involved in any other recent national disaster.
Defense Minister Lagorio has defended the performance of the Army, which, he says, had 6,500 men in the area within 24 hours of the quake. But special commissioner Guiseppe Zamberletti, a Christian Democrat who oversaw prior Italian earthquake operations, said that at the outset the Army Command mistakenly believed it could handle the situation with troops stationed in the area and encountered great logistical problems when it decided to move in other units.
There are now 17,000 soldiers and fire fighters in the area, but there is still reportedly a shortage of tents because troops were not replenished after emergency assistance was sent to Algeria following the recent earthquake there, Zamberletti said.
Today throughout the country, ordinary Italians and private organizatins continued efforts to collect money and other necessities to send to the area. A Turin newspaper announced that readers had already contributed more than $1 million. A Rome newspaper printed up labels for packages of raincoats and blankets that will be picked up Friday morning at newsstands throughout the city.
Plans are being made to transfer many of the survivors to hotels along the Mediterranean coast and to trailers and railway cars that are being requisitioned throughout the country.