Jail for quake scientists 'disappointing'

FRUSTRATED: Stefano Pampanin.
FRUSTRATED: Stefano Pampanin.

An Italian court's decision to jail six scientists for failing to warn of a deadly earthquake could force experts to go ''beyond common sense'' when assessing potential quake risks, a Christchurch expert says.

Six Italian scientists and a government official have been convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six years' prison for failing to give adequate warning of a quake that destroyed the central city of L'Aquila and killed more than 300 people in 2009.

Italian-born quake engineer Stefano Pampanin, who lectures at Canterbury University, said he was ''disappointed and frustrated'' to hear of the court's verdict.

DISASTER ZONE: A car in the rubble of L'Aquila after the 2009 earthquake.
DISASTER ZONE: A car in the rubble of L'Aquila after the 2009 earthquake.

''If you were asking these questions here [in New Zealand], people would almost laugh at you.''

Pampanin, who worked in L'Aquila immediately after the quake, said the region was known for its seismic activity, and the fault had ruptured at a much higher intensity than anyone had expected.

''They [scientists] can't really control it; they can't take the earthquakes away.''

He said Italian officials could have adopted New Zealand's method of a royal commission of inquiry, which was a ''very exceptional model'' for dealing with the situation.

''You gather the evidence first. Later on, you can possibly go for prosecutions, but you need to engage as many witnesses as possible and gather evidence.'' 

The convictions set a dangerous precedent and could lead to experts being overly cautious when issuing warnings, Pampanin said.

''We know the Alpine Fault is going to go at some stage, but if it's one second, one minute, right now or 100 years, we don't know,'' he said.

''What should we do? Should we evacuate Christchurch for 50 years until the earthquake goes? That goes beyond common sense.''

Officials should instead focus on ensuring the ''built environment'' in a seismically active area was as quake-resistant as possible, he said.

The seven Italian experts, all members of an official body called the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, were accused of negligence and malpractice in their evaluation of the danger of a quake and their duty to keep the city informed of the risks.

The case has drawn wide condemnation from international bodies, including the American Geophysical Union, which said the risk of litigation may deter scientists from advising governments or even working to assess seismic risk.

A magnitude-6.3 quake hit L'Aquila, in Italy's Abruzzo region, at 3.32am on April 6, 2009, wrecking tens of thousands of buildings, injuring more than 1000 people and killing hundreds in their sleep.

At the heart of the case was whether the government-appointed experts gave an overly reassuring picture of the risks facing the town, which contained many ancient and fragile buildings and which had been partly destroyed three times by quakes over the centuries.

The case focused in particular on a series of low-level tremors that hit the region in the months preceding the quake and which prosecutors said should have warned experts not to underestimate the risk of a major shock.

The scientists are unlikely to be sent to jail pending a probable appeal trial.

The Press