The Roman fleet at Misenum (the small peninsula mid-left on the space shuttle photo) helped to evacuate most of the residents of Pompeii and the surrounding towns. Pliny the Elder, commander of the fleet, dispatched ships while he personally directed efforts at Stabiae. While ashore, he died on August 25, most likely of a heart attack.
Around two thousand people were left in Pompeii. Perhaps there had not been enough time to evacuate everyone. Some likely returned to their homes after the ashfall stopped. The death toll, including all impacted towns (such as Herculaneum), was about 16,000. It was one of the deadliest volcanic eruptions of all time.
People and animals were buried in hot ash. As the ash hardened (volcanic ash does not dissolve in water), it molded itself to those who had died. The bodies deteriorated, leaving a cavity inside the hardened ash.
Professor Giuseppe Fiorelli, the father of 19th century Pompeii excavation and modern archeology, developed a method to learn more about the people who had been inside the cavities. Fiorelli poured plaster of paris into the open spaces in the hardened ash. The plaster replicas tell a chilling tale of final moments.
Today, nearly 2,000 years later, we can learn much about the inhabitants of Pompeii. As excavations continue, we see:
Whether huddled together or alone, the story is the same. The people of Pompeii, like the people on Herculaneum’s beach (and in its boat houses), could not have realized the full extent of the mountain’s fury. Sophisticated and wealthy though they were, they did not possess the knowledge they needed to survive.
One could argue that at least modern people have that knowledge. We know much more than the ancients knew about volcanic eruptions. We know how to survive an ash fall. We know a pyroclastic flow will destroy everything in its path.
Yet, many scientists predict Vesuvius is likely to erupt sometime within the next 25 years. About 3.5 million people currently live in the vicinity of her potential fury.