In one of Europe’s most controversial court cases in recent memory, seven scientists could face years in prison for failing to predict the 2009 earthquake that took hundreds of lives in the Abruzzo region of Italy.
The scientists once served on a natural disaster committee in L’Aquila, a beautiful old city surrounded by medieval walls in the shadow of the Apennine Mountains. They had convened because a series of small tremors had been rocking the town for months, and local officials wanted to know whether a major quake was imminent.
The scientists emerged from their committee deliberations and announced on May 31, 2009, that it was not possible to say for sure whether a major seismic event would occur.
One of the worst European earthquakes in recent memory struck L’Aquila six days later.
Following the tragedy, a team of Italian prosecutors charged the scientists with negligence amounting to manslaughter. The trial began in September of last year. According to prosecutor Fabio Picuti, some of the scientists had told locals that an earthquake was not likely, essentially encouraging them not to evacuate.
That trial is fast approaching its conclusion. This week, the prosecutors called for a four-year sentence for each of the seven scientists who were on that fateful committee.
Scientists the world over say the charges are ridiculous, since no technology exists that can predict earthquakes with total accuracy.
It was late in 2008 that small tremors -- a common occurrence in central Italy -- became alarmingly frequent in L’Aquila. By the early months of 2009, they were occuring about two or three times every day.
During the first five days of April, there were more than 10 tremors per day on average.
Occurrences like these are called ‘seismic swarms,’ and history has shown that they tend to ease tectonic tension and prevent -- rather than precede -- major quakes. So when scientists suggested the tremors might subside without incident, their predictions were in line with long-established patterns of seismic activity.
Still, they were wrong. After nightfall on Palm Sunday, the rumblings went from benign to cataclysmic in a matter of hours. Thousands of people all across central Italy felt the ground shake, but the worst of the damage centered on L’Aquila. There and in surrounding villages, more than 300 people lost their lives and at least 1,000 suffered injuries.
The suit against the seven scientific committee members is being brought on behalf of several L’Aquila residents who lost loved ones in the turmoil. One of them is Vincenzo Vittorini, 48, who told the journal Nature last year that he decided against evacuating his family because there was no official recommendation to do so.
When the quake began in earnest at 3:32 a.m., Vittorini was huddled with his wife and daughter in their apartment.
“It was like being in a blender,” he said. “It wasn’t a roar, it was a gigantic noise. And then darkness.”
The apartment building collapsed, and Vittorini was buried in the rubble for hours before rescuers found him. His wife and daughter both died.
Approaching a Verdict
Today, Vittorini knows that convicting the scientists won’t bring back his loved ones. But he defends his decision to join the civil lawsuit, even though the trial was widely ridiculed as soon as it began.
“This isn't a trial against science," he said, explaining that he simply felt betrayed by the authorities.
"Either they didn't know certain things, which is a problem, or they didn't know how to communicate what they did know, which is also a problem."
Picuti also defends the suit.
“I'm not crazy," he said. "I know [scientists] can't predict earthquakes. The basis of the charges is not that they didn't predict the earthquake. As functionaries of the state, they had certain duties imposed by law: to evaluate and characterize the risks that were present in L'Aquila.”
But the scientific community remains adamantly opposed to the charges. Thousands of scientists signed an open letter to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano when the case was brought in 2010.
“It is manifestly unfair for scientists to be criminally charged for failing to act on information that the international scientific community would consider inadequate as a basis for issuing a warning,” said the letter.
“We worry that subjecting scientists to criminal charges for adhering to accepted scientific practices may have a chilling effect on researchers, thereby impeding the free exchange of ideas necessary for progress in science,” it added.
Will the seven scientists who failed to predict the L’Aquila quake be sentenced to four years behind bars? The world will know sometime next month, after the defense presents its final arguments on Oct. 9 and 10.