Published: September 2007

Vesuvius Countdown

Vesuvius Feature


Asleep for Now

By Stephen S. Hall
Photograph by Robert Clark
When the first thunderous boom echoed across the plain of Campania, quickly followed by a blistering hail of volcanic rock, the man and the woman hastily abandoned their village and made a run for it to the east, up a gently sloping hill toward what must have seemed like possible sanctuary in a nearby forest. She was about 20 years old; he was in his mid-40s. A violent downpour of rubbly pumice mixed with incandescent rocks capable of crushing skulls and scalding skin obscured their escape. To their uncomprehending minds, the calamity descending upon them must have seemed like the end of the world.

Thousands of other people were at that same moment running for their lives, marking the soft ash and wet volcanic mud with footprints of human desperation that would remain undiscovered for millennia. The people whose footprints led to the north or northwest chose a path that probably saved their lives; those who set out to the east, like the young woman and the older man, toward the present-day Italian town of Avellino, unwittingly chose a path that led to certain death. They headed, by ill luck, smack into the middle of a fallout zone that would be swiftly buried under three feet of pumice.

Battered by the fallout as if stoned by the gods, weary with the effort and terrorized by the darkness that descended around them, each breath more labored than the one before, the couple—surely united in their desperation if not by any ancient form of matrimony—began to slow down. After struggling part way up the hill, a hill that rises toward a promontory now called Castel Cicala, they finally collapsed and fell to the ground, in the final throes of asphyxiation.

"They couldn't have seen more than a few feet in front of themselves," Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo was saying. A volcanologist at the Osservatorio Vesuviano in Naples, Mastrolorenzo stood in a small, well-lit room in the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Naples, leaning over a display case containing the beautifully preserved skeleton of the young woman extended on a bed of pumice, just as it had been found.

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