My first thought was…. What??!!
Seven scientists and other experts were indicted on manslaughter charges Wednesday for allegedly failing to sufficiently warn residents before a devastating earthquake that killed more than 300 people in central Italy in 2009.
Defense lawyers condemned the charges, saying it’s impossible to predict earthquakes. Seismologists have long concurred, saying the technology doesn’t exist to predict a quake and that no major temblor has ever been foretold.
Judge Giuseppe Romano Gargarella ordered the members of the national government’s Great Risks commission, which evaluates potential for natural disasters, to go on trial in L’Aquila on Sept. 20.
Italian media quoted the judge as saying the defendants “gave inexact, incomplete and contradictory information” about whether smaller tremors felt by L’Aquila residents in the six months before the April 6, 2009 quake should have constituted grounds for a quake warning.
Specifically, prosecutors focused on a memo issued after a March 31, 2009 meeting of the Great Risks commission which was called because of mounting concerns about the months of seismic activity in the region.
According to the commission’s memo _ issued one week before the big quake _ the experts concluded that it was “improbable” that there would be a major quake though it added that one couldn’t be excluded.
Afterward, members of the commission gave reassuring interviews to local media stressing the impossibility of predicting quakes and that even six months worth of low-magnitude temblors was not unusual in the highly seismic region and didn’t mean a big one was coming.
In one now-infamous interview included in the prosecutors’ case, commission member Bernardo De Bernardis of the national civil protection department responded to a question about whether residents should just sit back and relax with a glass of wine.
“Absolutely, absolutely a Montepulciano doc,” he responded, referring to a high-end red. “This seems important.”
Such a reassuring verdict by commission members “persuaded the victims to stay at home,” La Repubblica newspaper quoted the indictment as saying.
The 6.3-magnitude quake killed 308 people in and around the medieval town, which was largely reduced to rubble. Thousands of survivors lived in tent camps or temporary housing for months.
Defense lawyers contend that since quakes can’t be predicted, the accusations that the scientists and civil protection experts on the commission should have sounded an alarm that a big quake was coming make no sense.
“As we all know, quakes aren’t predictable,” said Marcello Melandri, defense lawyer for defendant Enzo Boschi, a scientist who heads the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology. In any case, Melandri contended, the panel “never said, ‘stay calm, there is no risk.’”
Although earthquakes can’t be predicted, experts said after Japan’s recent devastating quake that an early warning system in place there to detect the Earth’s rumblings before they can be felt helped save countless lives in that country.
But, as recently as this month, Italy’s national geophysics institute went to great lengths to insist that earthquakes can’t be predicted in a bid to dispel a widely reported prediction of a huge temblor that was due to strike Rome on May 11. No such quake occurred.
The U.S. Geological Survey takes pains to insist the technology doesn’t exist to predict quakes _ and won’t exist for a long time _ but that seismologists can calculate probabilities of future quakes. Rather than focusing on predictions, the USGS like the Italian geophysics institute focuses on raising awareness to improve construction standards in quake zones.
Boschi could not immediately be reached for comment, but Italian media reports quoted him as saying he had properly carried out his duties.
Many of the structures that collapsed in the 2009 quake were not properly built to standards for a quake-prone area like the central Apennine region of Abruzzo. Among the buildings which cracked and crumbled was L’Aquila’s hospital, just as it was struggling to treat about 1,500 injured.
Nobody inside the hospital, which was built in the 1970s, was killed or injured in the quake.
Manslaughter charges are not unusual in Italy for natural disasters such as quakes, but they have previously focused on violations of building codes in seismic regions.
In 2009, for example, an appeals court convicted five people in the 2002 quake-triggered collapse of a school in southern San Giuliano di Puglia that killed 27 children _ including the town’s entire first-grade class _ and a teacher. Prosecutors had alleged that shoddy construction contributed to the collapse of the school.