Enzo Boschi, the president of Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV), will face trial on charges of manslaughter with six other scientists and technicians for failing to alert the residents of L'Aquila ahead of the devastating earthquake that struck the central Italian town on 6 April 2009, killing 308 people.
The seven experts sit on the nation's major risks committee, and were probed by L'Aquila prosecutors after members of the public complained that it was the committee's reassurances that persuaded them not to leave their homes ahead of the quake.
In addition to Boschi, those facing trial are: Franco Barberi, committee vice president; Bernardo De Bernardinis, at the time vice president of Italy's Civil Protection Department and now president of the country's Institute for Environmental Protection and Research; Giulio Selvaggi, director of the National Earthquake Centre; Gian Michele Calvi, director of the European Centre for Training and Research in Earthquake Engineering; Claudio Eva, an earth scientist at the University of Genoa; and Mauro Dolce, director of the office of seismic risk at the Civil Protection Department.
The seven were placed under investigation almost a year ago, and today L'Aquila Judge Giuseppe Romano Gargarella announced that they will be tried. According to the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, Gargarella said that the seven defendants had supplied "imprecise, incomplete and contradictory information," in a press conference following a meeting held by the committee 6 days before the quake. In doing so, they "thwarted the activities designed to protect the public," the judge said.
So what might have happened if these scientists had predicted a major earthquake? Well, someone did:
Italian laboratory technician Giampaolo Giuliani predicted a major earthquake on Italian television a month before, after measuring increased levels of radon emitted from the ground. He was accused of being alarmist by the Director of the Civil Defence, Guido Bertolaso, and forced to remove his findings from the Internet (old data and descriptions are still on line). He was also reported to police a week before the main quake for "causing fear" among the local population when he predicted an earthquake was imminent in Sulmona, about 50 km (31 mi) from L'Aquila, on 30 March, after a 4° quake happened...
Sometimes you just can't win.
Here's an open letter to the President of the Republic of Italy from colleagues of the accused:
The allegations against the scientists are completely unfounded. Years of research worldwide have shown that there is currently no scientifically accepted method for short-term earthquake prediction that can reliably be used by Civil Protection authorities for rapid and effective emergency actions....
The scientific community involved in earthquake science urges the Italian government, local authorities and decision makers in general, to be proactive in establishing and carrying out local and national programs to support earthquake preparedness and risk mitigation rather than prosecuting scientists for failing to do something they cannot do yet - predict earthquakes.