7 experts to be tried over 2009 Italy quake

Seven scientists and other experts were indicted on manslaughter charges Wednesday for not warning residents before a devastating earthquake that killed more than 300 people in central Italy in 2009.

Defense lawyers condemned the charges, saying it's impossible to predict earthquakes.

Judge Giuseppe Romano Gargarella ordered the members of the national government's Great Risks commission, which evaluates potential for natural disasters, to go on trial in L'Aquila on Sept. 20.

Corriere della Sera's Web site and other Italian media quoted the judge as saying the defendants "gave inexact, incomplete and contradictory information" about whether smaller tremors felt by L'Aquila residents in the weeks and months before the April 6, 2009 quake should have constituted grounds for a quake warning.

The 6.3-magnitude quake killed 308 people in and around the medieval town, which was largely reduced to rubble. Thousands of survivors lived in tent camps or temporary housing for months.

Swarms of much smaller temblors had rattled L'Aquila in the months before the quake, causing frightened residents to wonder if they should evacuate.

Defense lawyers contend that since quakes can't be predicted, the accusations that the scientists and civil protection experts on the commission should have sounded an alarm that a big quake was coming make no sense.

"As we all know, quakes aren't predictable," said Marcello Melandri, defense lawyer for defendant Enzo Boschi, a scientist who heads the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology. In any case, Melandri contended, the panel "never said, 'stay calm, there is no risk.'"

Although earthquakes can't be predicted, experts said after Japan's recent devastating quake that an early warning system in place there to detect the Earth's rumblings before they can be felt helped save countless lives in that country.

In L'Aquila's case, the head of the national civil protection agency had asked the Great Risks commission to evaluate the situation after months of small tremors.

Boschi could not immediately be reached for comment, but Italian media reports quoted him as saying he had properly carried out his duties.

Many of the structures that collapsed in the 2009 quake were not properly built to standards for a quake-prone area like the central Apennine region of Abruzzo. Among the buildings which cracked and crumbled was L'Aquila's hospital, just as it was struggling to treat about 1,500 injured.

Nobody inside the hospital, which was built in the 1970s, was killed or injured in the quake.