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October 23 2012 3 23 /10 /October /2012 06:33

Jail for quake scientists 'disappointing'

Last updated 15:42 23/10/2012
A car in the rubble of the provincial government headquarters,
Getty Images

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

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 in prison for failing to give adequate warning of a deadly quake which destroyed the central city of L'Aquila and killed more than 300 people in 2009.


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


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


Pampanin, who worked in L'Aquila immediately following the city's earthquake, said the region was well known for its seismic activity, while 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.


''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 were 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 strength earthquake struck 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 of others 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 partially destroyed three times by earthquakes over the centuries.


The case focused in particular on a series of low-level tremors which 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.

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