While Italians yesterday were coming to terms with a lethal earthquake that struck near the northern city of Modena the day before, killing at least 17 people, residents of L'Aquila a few hundred kilometers to the south were again focused on the devastating quake they experienced 3 years earlier. That event, which killed 308 people, has led to the trial of seven scientists and engineers on charges of manslaughter for allegedly giving a false sense of security to people in the area ahead of the quake. Yesterday, 8 months after the trial began, all of the indicted took to the witness stand for the first time, offering a variety of defenses in response to the prosecution's questioning.
The prosecution argues that an assessment of seismic risk carried out by the seven men, who were all full or acting members of Italy's National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, was superficial and led to people remaining indoors and perishing in the early hours of 6 April 2009 instead of leaving their homes following tremors earlier in the night. The commission's analysis took place in a meeting held in L'Aquila a week earlier, on 31 March, which was held in response to what has been called a "swarm" of tremors shaking the area over the previous 4 months. Although that meeting was followed by a press conference, it was actually an interview given before the meeting—by one of the indicted, Bernardo De Bernardinis, at the time deputy chief of Italy's Civil Protection Department—that has gained particular notoriety. He told a television journalist that the tremors posed "no danger" and that "the scientific community continues to confirm to me that in fact it is a favorable situation, that is to say a continuous discharge of energy."
De Bernardinis, who is an expert on floods, yesterday told the court that he used the word "favorable" because he believed that the "swarm" had neither increased nor decreased the probability of a major quake striking the region in the near future. He came to this conclusion, he said, after having read two articles written by another of the indicted, Giulio Selvaggi of Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV), and three stories published by the ANSA news agency. He said that his impression of "normal" seismicity was reinforced by what he heard during the 31 March meeting, including the statement that more powerful tremors were improbable. "If they had said to me that the risk had increased I would have called Bertolaso straight away," he said, referring to his then boss, Guido Bertolaso.
Testifying first yesterday, before De Bernardinis, was Enzo Boschi, who at the time of the quake was president of the INGV. He said that swarms could not be considered precursors of earthquakes, saying that "a seismic sequence, whether consisting of big or small tremors, cannot tell us if a major earthquake is on the way." He ruled out the idea that a discharge of energy might reduce the chances of a major quake. "It is neither favorable nor unfavorable," he said, explaining that scientists cannot know how much energy there is to discharge.