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Natural Disaster: 24 Hours in Pompeii

The event at Pompeii 79AD is known worldwide. But what actually, happened during this catastrophe?
What would it have been like?
This article and video is based on events recorded from an eyewitness at the time is known as Pliny the Younger and the collection of the British Museum referenced at the end of the book, it's definitely worth a visit if you are interested to learn more.

The video below is a reflection of 24 hours in Pompeii


Pompeii was an ordinal city. It was very similar to many of the other urban centres found throughout Italy and the wider Roman Empire. Pompeii’s population at the time of the eruption was around 12-15000 people. Pompeii was a large city with a commercial hub, with at least 150 bars and taverns.
The people of Pompeii had no idea that they were in danger from Mount Vesuvius. For the people of Pompeii, the day of the eruption would have started like any other. The busy streets of the cities would have been full of ordinary people.
For Romans living around the Bay of Naples in southern Italy, Vesuvius was considered as just a fertile mountain, perfect for farming. Although it had been active in the 8th century BC it had been dormant ever since, leaving the people of the cities with a false sense of security. Only if they knew what was to occur.
Violent earthquakes in AD 62 or 63 were caused as the gases which had built up within the cone tried to force their way out.
In AD 79 the pressure had built up again, and the thick layer of lava hardened to form a plug in the crater, this plug was not enough to contain the gases, meaning the cap was weak and vulnerable. For several days now there had been earth tremors affecting the surrounding area.  


After several small explosions, Vesuvius erupts, sending a tall mushroom cloud of superheated rock and gas over 20km into the sky. The cloud blows southwards, plunging everything into total darkness.
“About one in the afternoon… a cloud was ascending, the appearance which I cannot give you more of an exact description than by likening it to that of a pine tree, for it shot up to a great height in the form of a very tall trunk, which spread itself out at the top into a sort of branches; occasioned, I imagine, either by a sudden gust of air that impelled it, the force of which decreased as it advanced upwards, or the cloud itself being pressed back again by its own weight expanded in the manner I have mentioned; it appeared sometimes bright and sometimes dark and spotted, according to as it was either more or less impregnated with earth and cinders”.
-Pliny the Younger describes the Vesuvius eruption
The mountain emits noxious gases and extremely loud noises. Violent tremors cause buildings to collapse. People flee to the beach, hoping for rescue from the sea but floating banks of pumice prevent ships from reaching or leaving the shore.
As the eruption engulfed the cities, many of the people fleeing for their lives paused to grab objects of value such as jewellery and coins. Perhaps they hoped to provide a safeguard against difficult times ahead.
“He ordered the galleys to be put to sea… Hastening then to the place from whence others fled with the utmost terror, he steered his course direct to the point of danger, and with so much calmness and presence of mind as to be able to make and dictate his observations upon the motion and all the phenomena of that dreadful scene.
He was now so close to the mountain that the cinders, which grew thicker and hotter the nearer he approached, fell into the ships, together with pumice stones, and black pieces of burning rock: they were in danger too not only of being aground by the sudden retreat of the sea, but also from the vast fragments which rolled down from the mountain, and obstructed all the shore.”
-Pliny the Younger describes how his uncle, Pliny the Elder, went to the aid of those at the foot of Mount Vesuvius.
“They consulted together whether it would be most prudent to trust to the houses, which now rocked from side to side with frequent and violent concussions as though shaken from their very foundations; or fly to the open fields, where the calcined stones and cinders, though light indeed, yet fell in large showers, and threatened destruction.
In this choice of dangers they resolved for the fields: a resolution which, while the rest of the company were hurried into by their fears, my uncle embraced upon cool and deliberate consideration. They went out then, having pillows tied upon their heads with napkins; and this was their whole defence against the storm of stones that fell round them.”
-Pliny the Elder then disembarks and starts to assist on land
“Meanwhile broad flames shone out in several places from Mount Vesuvius, which the darkness of the night contributed to render still brighter and clearer. Being at a convenient distance from the houses, we stood still, in the midst of a most dangerous and dreadful scene. The chariots, which we had ordered to be drawn out, were so agitated backwards and forwards, though upon the most level ground, that we could not keep them steady, even by supporting them with large stones”.
-Pliny the Younger
“The sea seemed to rollback upon itself, and to be driven from its banks by the convulsive motion of the earth; it is certain at least the shore was considerably enlarged, and several sea animals were left upon it. On the other side, a black and dreadful cloud, broken with rapid, zigzag flashes, revealed behind it variously shaped masses of flame: these last were like sheet-lightning, but much larger.”
-Pliny the Younger


Ash and pumice stones rain down on Pompeii. People are trapped by blocked doors while ceilings and roofs collapse under the weight of the debris.
Pompeii, being downwind from the volcano, was showered with small volcanic stones.
“The ashes now began to fall upon us, though in no great quantity. I looked back; a dense dark mist seemed to be following us, spreading itself over the country like a cloud… We had scarcely sat down when night came upon us, not such as we have when the sky is cloudy, or when there is no moon, but that of a room when it is shut up, and all the lights put out.”
-Pliny the Younger
The residents of the cities met death in different ways and at different times but many of them shared the basic instinct, as they fled, to take things with them that they believed were useful for survival.
The eruption reaches its peak and unleashes a hurricane of heavier, denser pumice. This causes the widespread collapse of buildings and destabilises the volcanic cloud, triggering the first deadly pyroclastic surge.
“You might hear the shrieks of women, the screams of children, and the shouts of men; some calling for their children, others for their parents, others for their husbands, and seeking to recognise each other by the voices that replied; one lamenting his own fate, another that of his family; some wishing to die, from the very fear of dying; some lifting their hands to the gods, but the greater part convinced that there were now no gods at all, and that the final endless night of which we have heard had come upon the world.”
-Pliny the Younger



The cloud reaches its maximum height of over 30km then collapses spectacularly. A massive pyroclastic surge cascades down Vesuvius’s north-west slopes. It heads for Herculaneum, Pompeii's smaller neighbouring city. The massive pyroclastic surge headed towards Herculaneum with temperatures of up to 400°C, Pompeii also experienced a pyroclastic surge of temperatures around 300 c instantly killing everyone it touched. You must remember skin blisters around 55-6 degrees Celsius. 
The same heat that carbonised objects reduced people to skeletons. The full force and high temperatures of impact would lead to broken bones. But that’s nothing bodies were found showing signs of instant death exposed to the impact where their bodies were burnt back to the bone within a matter of seconds.
The bodies found so far in the cities account for only 10% of their estimated populations. One-third of Pompeii and two-thirds of Herculaneum is still unexcavated and it is possible that many bodies have yet to be uncovered in and around the cities.

Early morning

As dawn breaks, the cloud collapses for the last time. Between 06.00 and 08.00 huge pyroclastic surges pour onto Pompeii killing everyone still there and smashing remaining buildings. The cloud collapses for the last time and darkness spreads across the Bay of Naples.
“At last this dreadful darkness was dissipated by degrees, like a cloud of smoke; the real day returned, and even the sun shone out, though with a lurid light, like when an eclipse is coming on. Every object that presented itself to our eyes (which were extremely weakened) seemed changed, being covered deep with ashes as if with snow.”
-Pliny the Younger
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius was disastrous, but what if it erupted today?
Today two million people live in the immediate vicinity of Mount Vesuvius. This mountain has erupted more than 50 times since the eruption in 79 A.D., when it buried Pompeii and its sister city, Herculaneum. After Pompeii was buried and lost to history, the volcano continued to erupt every 100 years until about 1037 A.D., when it entered a 600-year period of silence. In 1631, the volcano killed an additional 4000 unsuspecting inhabitants. It was during the restoration after this eruption that workers discovered the ruins of Pompeii buried and forgotten for nearly 1600 years. It would take another 300 years for the excavations to reveal the story of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Looking at historical eruptions like Mount Vesuvius and others like Krakatoa really shows the damage caused by a volcano especially when a nearby population has set up home.
Is this something we had learned from? Well no, not really, Mount Vesuvius is still heavily populated if an eruption were to occur at Mount Vesuvius many lives would be affected destroying the whole city of Naples and probably cause chaos all over the world?
Just imagine how much worse would this be if it was the supervolcanoes of Yellowstone or even Toba?