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  • Italian earthquake: Prosecutors ponder murder charges

Italian earthquake: Prosecutors ponder murder charges

To help victims of the Italian earthquake, you can donate via the British Red Cross (phone 0845 054 7201) or their Italian equivalent (in Italian)

Murder charges may be brought against constructors responsible for badly constructed buildings that collapsed in the Italian earthquake, investigators have revealed.

Nearly 15,000 are thought to have been damaged in the April 6 catastrophe, which claimed 295 lives. Although many of the structures were medieval, many modern buildings collapsed as well, such as L'Aquila’s San Salvatore hospital, eight years old and supposedly quake-proof.

The city’s public prosecutor Alfredo Rossini promised “the mother of all inquiries” and declared: “We have to see if anyone involved in the chain of building the houses that collapsed contributed to the deaths caused. If someone made a mistake, the crime is without intent. However, if someone behaved like a thief and deliberately didn’t put iron in the pillars, then it becomes a crime with intent.”

Some rescuers have claimed pillars in collapsed buildings that should have consisted of reinforced concrete instead appeared to have been made of sand. Mr Rossini added: “We must verify whether some buildings were really constructed out of sand, as has been indicated from several sources, or in other cases without steel.”

His team’s investigations will start with 13 buildings, which have now been sealed off, but will eventually include several others. Around 20 people are due to be quizzed. He has already said the San Salvatore hospital will form “one of the main points'' of his inquiries. Hailed as state-of-the-art and earthquake-resistant when opened in 2000, it proved so flimsy during the earthquake that its walls gave way and medics were forced to tend to the wounded outdoors.

Architect and university professor Paolo Rocchi, who specialises in the conservation of historic buildings, summed up the mounting anger in the devastated region when he said: “I am really startled that a reinforced concrete hospital in a highly seismic zone can be so devastated as to be declared off-limits. It's absurd.”

Another of the buildings under investigation is the city's student hostel, where eight of its 80-odd inhabitants lost their lives. It too was meant to have been constructed under the more stringent earthquake-resistant rules introduced in 1980.

Further fuelling local fury is the revelation that a 1999 study was ignored after it named 42,000 public buildings in quake-prone zones that urgently needed reinforcement “to safeguard human life”. Some 500 buildings in and around L'Aquila, including schools and churches, appeared on the list. They included the local HQ, the Land Registry office and university buildings, all of which crumbled in the 6.3-magnitude tremor.

Geologist Franco Barberi, who as the then-head of the Civil Protection Agency compiled the report, said: “What makes one angry is that if this happened in California or Japan or some other country where for some time they have been practising anti-seismic protection, it would not have caused a single death."

Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi has been accused of further embarrassing gaffes as he tours the disaster zone. He told an African Red Cross worker: “I wish I had as much time to lie in the sun as you do,” and told a black churchman: “My compliments, you are very suntanned.” He has previously aimed a similar “quip” at Barack Obama. Meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI is to visit the earthquake zone on May 1.