Mount Vesuvius Worse than Atomic Bombs

On this day in 79 A.D., after centuries of dormancy, Mount Vesuvius erupts in southern Italy. The massively devastating event destroyed the prosperous Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum and killed thousands.The cities, buried under a thick layer of volcanic material and mud, were never rebuilt and largely forgotten in the course of history.

In the 18th century, Pompeii and Herculaneum were rediscovered and excavated, providing an unprecedented archaeological record of the everyday life of an ancient civilization, startlingly preserved in sudden death. Pompeii supported between 10,000 and 20,000 inhabitants at the time of its destruction, and but for a significant earthquake in 62 A.D., no eruption, flows or other volcanic activity had signaled the coming conflagration.

Just after midday on August 24, fragments of ash, pumice, and other volcanic debris began pouring down on Pompeii, quickly covering the city to a depth of more than 9 feet and causing the roofs of many houses to fall in.The eruption ejected a cloud of stones, ashes and volcanic gases to a height of 21 miles, spewing molten rock and pulverized pumice at the rate of 7.8×105 cubic yards per second, ultimately releasing a hundred thousand times the thermal energy released by the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings. Surges of pyroclastic material and heated gas, known as nuées ardentes, reached the city walls on the morning of August 25 and soon asphyxiated those residents who had not been killed by falling debris. 

Additional pyroclastic flows and rains of ash followed, adding at least another 9 feet of debris and preserving in a pall of ash the bodies of the inhabitants who perished while taking shelter in their houses or trying to escape toward the coast or by the roads leading to Stabiae or Nuceria. Thus Pompeii remained buried under a layer of pumice stones and ash 19 to 23 feet deep. The city’s sudden burial served to protect it for the next 17 centuries from vandalism, looting, and the destructive effects of climate and weather.

Exact casualty numbers are unknown, but the only surviving eyewitness account of the event consists of two letters by Pliny the Younger to the historian Tacitus.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.