A trial starts in Italy this week to decide if six scientists and bureaucrats ought to be held criminally responsible for the deaths of 309 people in a magnitude-6.3 earthquake in April 2009.
The long version of this tragedy is detailed in the Nature journal and it's well worth reading because of the similarities between Italy in 2009 and Canterbury in 2010-11.
Nature journalist Stephen Hall writes that the mountainous town of L'Aquila had been levelled in 1461 and 1703, and was shaken by hundreds of low-level tremors in early 2009, including a magnitude-4.1 on March 30.
Italian geoscientists were monitoring carefully and several key scientists and bureaucrats attended a meeting on March 31, 2009 in L'Aquila at which risk was discussed.
The message from the meeting, according to a participant, was ''If you live in L'Aquila, you can never say, 'No problem'. You can never say that in a high-risk region.''
Others challenge that version of the meeting, but what happened next was well recorded: two scientists, the mayor and a civil defence official held a press conference. The civil defence official said the seismic situation was ''normal'' and posed ''no danger''.
He continued: ''The scientific community continues to assure me that ... it's a favourable situation because of the continuous discharge of energy.''
The theory was that hundreds of small tremors were releasing energy and so a large quake there was unlikely. A journalist asked, ''So we should have a nice glass of wine?'' and the civil defence official replied, ''Absolutely.''
On April 5, L'Aquila was hit by a 3.9 shortly before 11pm and then the devastating 6.3 about four hours later.
One survivor, Vincenzo Vittorini, lost his wife and only child, and says that if the risks had been better explained, he would have fled his home after the 3.9.
The prosecutor tells Nature that nobody can predict earthquakes, but he's pursuing the scientists and bureaucrats because they failed to effectively communicate the risk.
Critics of the prosecutions believe the defendants are blamed for failing to predict a large earthquake, which is unfair. Most of the international geo-community supports the Italian scientists and bureaucrats.
I don't favour prosecuting New Zealand earthquake scientists and civil defence managers, but there's an important principle that must stand. These officials can't have immunity from prosecution. They must be prosecutable if they fall below an acceptable standard.
Besides, there's another New Zealand group that ought to be lawyering up - the engineers who certified that buildings were safe.
Photo: The state funeral for earthquake victims in the Italian town of L'Aquila in this April 10, 2009.
- Fairfax Media
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