Voices: Judged unfairly in L'Aquila - roles and responsibilities should have been considered

by Max Wyss
Friday, October 26, 2012

A goverment building in L'Aquila, Italy, damaged by the April 2009 earthquake. TheWiz83, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

Earlier this week, an Italian judge summarily convicted seven participants in a meeting of the Italian Serious Risks Commission who evaluated the hazard posed by the L’Aquila earthquake swarm before the magnitude-6.3 earthquake on April 6, 2009, for the same offense and to the same penalty: six years in prison. Much has been written about this court decision, but the very different roles played by the seven defendants and their different expertise have not been discussed. Is there no difference among the roles of the “L’Aquila Seven” in the communication disaster?

A panel like the Italian Serious Risks Commission must consist of experts covering different fields and with different specializations, and must also rely on outside experts to ensure the best information is presented. Seven men who participated in a meeting that this commission held prior to the earthquake were convicted of manslaughter. The commission was headed by Franco Barberi, a volcanologist by trade with long experience in civil protection. Three seismologists formed the largest group of specialists: Enzo Boschi, then-president of Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV), Claudio Eva, professor at the University of Genova, and Giulio Selvaggi, director of the INGV’s National Earthquake Centre in Rome, who was not a member of the commission but was asked to present seismological data. Gian Michele Calvi, president of the European Centre for Training and Research in Earthquake Engineering in Pavia, specializes in infrastructure security and building fragility and was on the commission to provide expertise on the consequences of earthquakes rather than the role of earthquake swarms. Mauro Dolce, head of the seismic-risk office at the national Department of Civil Protection in Rome, has an engineering background but participated in the commission meeting as a representative of the Department of Civil Protection. The civil servant, Bernardo De Bernardinis, then vice-director of the Department of Civil Protection (and a fluid mechanics engineer by trade), apparently called, ran and dissolved the meeting.

At issue was the question of the possibility that the ongoing earthquake swarm of many hundred small events near L’Aquila could escalate into a main shock large enough to cause buildings to collapse; the three seismologists were the relevant experts. They are the ones who have spent their careers learning as much as possible about the earthquake hazard in their country. It is certain that they were aware of the scientific publications that estimated that the probability of a larger, damaging shock to follow an earthquake swarm or an aftershock sequence is in the range of 2 to 5 percent. With these odds, most people would bet that nothing major was going to happen.

The meeting lasted exactly one hour and its minutes show that Boschi said: “It is unlikely that an earthquake like the one in 1703 could occur in the short term, but the possibility cannot be totally excluded.” Eva said that “in the seismically active area of L’Aquila, it is not possible to affirm that earthquakes will not occur,” and Selvaggi pointed out that “although some recent earthquakes have been preceded by small shocks, it is also true that many recent sequences have not led to a strong earthquake.” They said this because they are well-informed professionals.

However, before these experts could state their opinions, the damage of misinforming the population had already been done. De Bernardinis stated in an interview with a local television station that the seismic situation in L’Aquila was “certainly normal” and posed “no danger.” He compounded the problem, adding that “the scientific community continues to assure me that, to the contrary, it’s a favorable situation because of the continuous discharge of energy.” The statement that the ongoing tremors were favorable because they discharge seismic stress and reduce the probability of a major quake is scientifically inaccurate, for one because of the huge difference in energy between small earthquakes and large ones. De Bernardinis' statement is similar, but on a smaller scale, to saying, when you take a few tons of water out of the ocean, the chance of a tsunami is reduced.

The case centers around these statements. According to a story in Nature, Simona Giannangeli, a lawyer who represented some of the civil plaintiffs, said: “You could almost hear a sigh of relief go through the town. It was repeated almost like a mantra: the more tremors, the less danger.”

“That phrase,” one L’Aquila resident said in the Nature story, “was deadly for a lot of people here” — largely because local custom had been to go outside when earthquakes struck, even if that meant spending the night outside. Instead, according to plaintiffs, due to the reassurances from De Bernardinis, people stayed inside where they were then killed or injured when their homes collapsed.

Where were the three seismologists of the panel and the two engineers — the qualified experts — when this fatal statement was made in the TV interview an hour before the commission meeting? They were traveling, on their way to the commission meeting. And where were the experts when the press conference was held after their deliberations? They were driving back to Rome, because they had not been invited to the press conference, and they did not know it took place, according to Boschi.

Thus, it appears that the three seismologists and the two earthquake engineers were convicted for saying nothing even though they were never given the opportunity to say anything. There certainly existed a great difference in the roles played in this tragedy by different members of the commission. It seems that the leader, De Bernardinis, convened the commission meeting, issued an unprofessional, inaccurate statement to a TV crew, listened afterward to the experts' deliberations for an hour, sent them home, and at the following press conference did not correct the inaccurate statements he had made before. Although a video exists of this news conference, there is no sound and we do not know what exactly was said at this important stage of the tragedy.

Can the seismologists and the engineers on the commission be faulted for not having insisted that a common, factual summary report of their deliberations be written on the spot and distributed to the media? Perhaps, because one can argue that in a pressing situation, with a frightening earthquake swarm shaking up the population nearly daily, time was of the essence and a common report needed to be produced immediately. However, it may be difficult in such a situation to dissuade leaders to abandon the plan they had decided on, and to spend a few extra hours drafting the needed summary report on the spot.

In the wake of this tragic court decision, many scientists worldwide have argued against the conviction of scientists and engineers who gave their expert opinions on a difficult question for which there is no easy answer. That’s absolutely true; they should not have been convicted.

In addition, the court failed to recognize the enormous difference in the involvement of different commission members in this situation. By being dismissed before the press conference, the five experts who did not participate in it were absolved by a government official of their “obligation to avoid death, injury and damage, or at least to minimize them,” as alleged by the prosecutor.

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