Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Scientists on trial: At fault? - 14th Sept 2011

In 2009, an earthquake devastated the Italian city of L'Aquila and killed more than 300 people. Now, scientists are on trial for manslaughter.

From when he was a young boy growing up in a house on Via Antinori in the medieval heart of this earthquake-prone Italian city, Vincenzo Vittorini remembers the ritual whenever the family felt a seismic tremor overnight. "My father was afraid of earthquakes, so whenever the ground shook, even a little, he would gather us and take us out of the house," he says. "We would walk to a little piazza nearby, and the children — we were four brothers — and my mother would sleep in the car. My father would stand outside, smoking cigarettes with the other fathers, until morning." That, he says, represented the age-old, cautionary "culture" of living in an earthquake zone.

Vittorini, a 48-year-old surgeon who has lived in L'Aquila all his life, will never forgive himself for breaking with that tradition on the night of 5 April 2009. After hundreds of low-level tremors over several months, L'Aquila shook with a strong, magnitude-3.9 tremor shortly before 11 p.m. on that Palm Sunday evening. Vittorini debated with his wife Claudia and his terrified nine-year-old daughter Fabrizia whether to spend the rest of the night outside. Swayed by what he describes as "anaesthetizing" public assurances by government officials that there was no imminent danger, and recalling scientific statements claiming that each shock diminished the potential for a major earthquake, he persuaded his family to remain in their apartment on Via Luigi Sturzo. All three of them were huddled together in the master bed when, at 3:32 a.m. on 6 April, a devastating magnitude-6.3 earthquake struck the city. Read More

In a trial set to begin next week, an Italian judge will decide whether the symbolic death of L'Aquila — and, more specifically, the earthquake-related deaths of dozens of citizens included in the lawsuit, including Vittorini's wife and daughter — constituted a crime due to the negligence of six leading Italian scientists and one government official, who have been charged with manslaughter in connection with the case.