Vesuvius Threatens Naples
( Originally Published 1906 )
Beautiful Italian City on the Mediterranean Almost Engulfed in Ashes and Lava from the Terrible VolcanoóWorst Eruption Since the Days of Pompeii and Herculaneum - Buildings Crushed and Thousands Rendered Homeless.
THE worst eruption of Mt.Vesuvius since the days when it buried under molten lava and ashes Pompeii and Herculaneum occurred on April 6, 1906. Almost without warning the huge crater opened its fiery mouth and poured from its throat and fiery interior and poured down the mountain sides oceans of burning lava, and warned 60,000 or 70,000 inhabitants of villages in the paths of the fiery floods that their only safety was in immediate flight. From the very start the scene was terrible and awe-inspiring. From the summit of the mountain a column of fire fully 1,000 feet leaped upward and lighted by its awful glare the sky and sea for miles around. Occasionally great masses of molten stone, some weighing as much as a ton were, accompanied by a thunderous noise, ejected from the crater and sent crashing down the mountain side, causing the natives, even as far as Naples, to quake with fear, abandon their homes and fall, praying, on their knees. One of the immense streams of lava which flowed from the crater's mouth was more than 200 feet wide and, ever broadening, kept advancing at the rate of 21 feet a minute.
The first great modern eruption was that of 1631, eleven years after the pilgrim fathers landed on Plymouth rock. A sudden tidal wave of lava, utterly unexpected, engulfed 18,000 people, many, of the coast towns being wholly and the remainder partially wiped out.
In 1707 the volcano sent forth a cloud of ashes so dense that at midday in the streets of Naples the blackness of the darkest night reigned supreme. The shrieks of terror stricken women pierced the air and the churches were crowded by the populace. The relics of San Januariusóhis skull among themówere carried in procession through the streets.
Thirty years later a stream of lava one mile wide and containing 300,000,000 cubic feet burst from the mountain side. The next notable eruption was that of 1760, when new cones formed at the side and gave forth lava, smoke and ashes. Seven years later the king of Naples hastily retreated into the capital from the palace at Portici, threatened by a fresh outburst, and found the Neapolitans again in confusion.
An eruption lasting a year and a half commenced in 1793. Lava was emitted for fifteen hours and the sea boiled 100 yards from the coast.
That the Vesuvius eruptions are gaining in frequency is attested by. the record of the nineteenth century, surpassing as it does that of the eighteenth. The first of note occurred in 1822, when the top of the great cone fell in and a lava stream a mile in width poured out. Twelve years later a river of lava nine miles long wiped out a town of 500 houses.
Lava flowed almost to the gates of Naples in 1855 and caused a deplorable loss of property to the cultivated region above.
Blocks of stone forty-five feet in circumference were hurled down the mountain by the spectacular outburst of 1872. Two lava floods rushed down the valley on two sides, ashes were shot thousands of feet in the air and the sea rose for miles. More than 20,000,000 cubic feet of lava was ejected in a single day.
Since 1879 Vesuvius has been variously active there being two eruptions of note in 1900 and two others in 1903. But that of 1905 was more violent than any since 1872. Red hot stones hurled 1,600 feet above the cone dropped down the flanks of the mountain with deafening sound. One stone thrown out weighed two tons, while 1,844 violent explosions were recorded in a single day by the instruments of the seismic observatory.
The cog railroad running nearly to the top has been badly damaged a number of times in recent years and the occupants of the meteorological observatory on or near the summit have had several narrow escapes.
This institution is situated about a mile and a half from the cone, near the foot of the rope railway ascending that troubled apex. It is a handsome edifice of white stone and can be seen at a great distance against the black background of lava. It stands on the side toward Naples, on the top of a conspicuous ridge 2,080 feet above the level of the sea. On each side of this ridge flows a river of lava during eruptions, but the building has withstood all, unscathed, as yet.
An observer is on duty, night and day, even during the most violent outbursts. During the late one, when a sheet of red-hot lava glowed on either side of the ridge and when fiery projectiles fell all about, the post was not deserted. Inside, mounted upon piers penetrating the ground, are delicate instruments whose indicating hands, resting against record sheets of paper, trace every movement made by the shuddering mountain. One sign by which these great outbursts may almost always be forecast is the falling of water in the wells of the neighboring villages.
The Vesuvian volcanic region, like that of Aetna, is partly land and partly sea, including all of the Bay of Naples, sometimes called "the crater," lying at the very foot of Vesuvius, with a circuit of fifty-two miles and the metropolis at the extreme north-ern corner.
The whole base of the mountain, is skirted by a series of villages where abide 100,000 soulsóbirds nesting in the cannon's mouth. Between these settlements and even above, within the jaws of the fiery demon, the tourist sees scattered huts, tent shaped of straw interwoven.
A road twenty miles long, commencing at Naples, extends southeastwardly along the shore of the bay and then, winding inland, completely encircles the mountain. This is dotted with villages, all within hearing of the volcanic rumblings and bellowings.
Four miles down the bay road from Naples lies Portici, its 12,000 population dwelling upon lava thrown down to the sea by the eruption of 1631. On this black bed stands the royal palace, built by Charles III. in 1738. Resina, one mile further, is the favorite suburban seat of wealthy Neapolitans. Its 14,000 residents dwell partly upon the ruins of Herculaneum and of Retina, to which latter city Pliny the elder set out during the great eruption which destroyed these cities and Pompeii.
The colossal brazier of Mount Vesuvius dealt most awfully and destructively with the towns on its declivities and near its base. The inhabitants of these villages naturally became panic-stricken and abandoned their homes for the open, although the atmosphere was dense with volcanic ashes and the sulphur fumes of subterreanean fires. The people, so long as they dared remain near their homes, crowded the churches day and night, praying for deliverance from the impending peril, manifestations of which were hourly heard and felt in explosions which resembled a heavy cannonade, and in the tremblings of the earth, which were constantly recurring.
The intense heat of the lava destroyed vegetation before the stream reached it. The peasants of Portici, at the west foot of Vesuvius, cleared their grounds of vineyards and trees in the effort to lessen the danger from the fire and resist the progress of the lava to the utmost.
The streams of lava became resistless. They snapped like pipe stems the trunks of chestnut trees hundreds of years old and blighted with their torrid breath the blooms on the peach trees before the trees themselves had been reached. The molten streams did not spare the homes of the peasants, and when these have been razed they dash into the wells, as though seeking to slake their thirst, and, having filled them, continue their course down the mountain side.
Everywhere in the vicinity of the volcano pitiful scenes were witnessedówomen tearing their hair in their grief and old men crying aloud at the loss of their beloved homesteads, while in the distance, in striking contrast, were the sapphire-colored Mediterranean, the violet-hued mountains of the Sorrento peninsula and the island of Capri in the tranquil sea.
The town of Bosco Trecase, on the mountain's southern declivity, had been transformed into a gray island of ruin by the ashes from the crater of the volcano. Torrents of liquid fire, resembling in the distance serpents with glittering yellow and black scales, coursed in all directions, amid rumblings, detonations and earth tremblings while a pall of sulphurous smoke that hovered over all made breathing difficult.
While the inhabitants, driven before soldiers, were urged to seek safety in flight, fiery lava was invading their homes and the cemetery where their dead was buried. In about 48 hours after the eruptions began not a trace remained of Bosco Trecase, a city of 10,000 population. Several lads who were unharmed when the danger following the eruptions of Mount Vesuvius seemed most imminent subsequently ventured to walk on the cooling lava. They went too far and the crust broke under their weight. They were swallowed up before the helpless onlookers.
About the same time the village of Bosco Reale, to the eastward, became threatened, and the women of the village, weeping with fright, carried a statue of St. Anne as near as they could go to the flowing lava, imploring a miracle to stay the advance of the consuming stream. As the fiery tide persisted in advancing the statue had to be frequently. moved backward.
Ottajano, at the northeast foot of the mountain, and 12 miles from Naples, was in the path of destruction and the scenes there when the five victims were unearthed were most terrible. The positions of the bodies showed that the victims had died while in a state of great terror, the faces being convulsed with fear. Three bodies were found in a confessional of one of the fallen churches.
One body was that of an old woman who was sitting with her right arm raised as though to ward off the advancing danger. The second was that of a child about 8 years old. It was found dead in a position which would indicate that the child had fallen with a little dog close to it and had died with one arm raised across its face to protect itself and its pet from the crumbling ruins. The third body, that of a woman, was reduced to an unrecognizable mass.
Other bodies which were found later caused such an impression among the already frantic population that the authorities did not deem it advisable to permit any more bodies to be identified for the time being.
Five churches and ten houses fell under the weight of ashes and cinders, which lay over four feet deep on the ground. Many were killed and injured.
One mile southward from the site of Bosco Trecase, on the shore of the Gulf of Naples, is Torre Annunziata, a city of 30,000 inhabitants, and the streams of lava having almost surrounded. it the inhabitants deserted their homes in terror and fled to Naples and other points. This place was destroyed by an eruption in 1631. At the northern boundary of the town is a picturesque cypress-planted cemetery, and there the lava stream was halted and turned aside. It was as if the dead had effectually cried out to arrest the crushing river of flame, as at Catania the veil of St. Agathe is said to have stayed a similar stream from Mount Etna.
The visit of the King and Queen of Italy and the Duke of Aosta to the town caused a rumor to be started by the excited people, and particularly among the panic-stricken women, that their presence had resulted in a miracle, and, singularly enough, shortly after the arrival of the sovereigns, and while the King and Queen were trying to console the people, repeating frequently, "Courage! Be strong!" the wind suddenly changed and the atmosphere, which up to that moment had been impregnated with sulphurous gas and suffocating fumes, cleared away and the sun burst forth. The stream of lava stopped its march, after having destroyed a section of the northeast part of the suburb.
The air rang with benedictions for the King from his devoted subjects. Hope at once returned and the King and Queen were preparing to move on, but the people insisted that they remain, begging that they be not abandoned. The King and Queen wished to visit Torre Del Greco, which is only seven miles distant from Naples, and was also in danger of being wiped out, and the people fled from it in dismay, amid a continued fall of sand and ashes, to points of reputed safety. This village had been eight times destroyed and as often rebuilt. A violent storm of sulphurous rain occurred at San Giuseppe, Vesuviana and Saviano.
The town of Nola, an old place of 15,000 inhabitants, twenty-two miles from Naples, was almost buried under the shower of ashes coming from the crater, which were carried by the wind as far as the Adriatic sea.
The inhabitants of the country in the vicinity of Caserta, a place of about 35,000 people, and termed the Versailles of Naples, were also endangered by cinder ashes and flowing lava.
The village of San Gennaro was partially buried in sand and ashes and several houses were crushed. At that place three per-sons were killed and more than twenty injured.
Sarno, Portici, Ciricello, Poggio and Morino became practically uninhabitable because of the ashes and fumes, and the people fled from the town. At Sarno three churches and the municipal buildings collapsed. The sand and cinders were six feet deep there and all the inhabitants sought safety in flight.
Sarno is a town of some 10,000 people and is situated about ten miles east of Mount Vesuvius. It contains an old castle, some sulphur baths and manufactories of paper, copper wares, cotton goods and silk fabrics.
Almost equal to the devastation wrought by the lava was the damage done by cinders and ashes, which in increditable quantities had been carried great distances. This has caused the practical destruction of San Guiseppe, a place of 6,000 inhabitants. All but 200 of the people had fled from there and of these 200 who had assembled in a church to attend mass about 100 were killed.
While the priest was performing his sacred office the roof fell in and all who were not killed were badly injured. These unfortunates were for hours without surgical or medical assistance. The only thing left standing in the church was a statue of St. Anne, the preservation of which the poor, homeless people accepted as a miracle and promise of deliverance from their peril.
A runaway train from San Guiseppe for Naples was derailed, owing to showers of stones from the crater. At some points near the mountain it was estimated that the sands and ashes reached a height of nearly 150 feet.
San Georgio, Cremona, Somma Vesuviana, Resina and other inland and coast towns not mentioned above, also suffered terrible devastation.
The most of the buildings in the villages were of flimsy construction with flat roofs and so were but poorly calculated to bear the weight of ashes and cinders that fell upon them. Inevitably it was found that a considerable number of persons perished by the falling of their homes.
National and local authorities from the first evidences of danger attempted the evacuation of the threatened villages and towns, but adequate means to transport the inhabitants were lacking, although thousands of soldiers with artillery carts had been sent to the places where the sufferers were most in need of assistance.
At many places the people were suffering from panic and a state of great confusion existed, which was added to by superstition. Some of the parish priests refused to open their churches to people who tried to obtain admittance, fearing that an earth-quake would destroy the buildings when full of people and thus increase the list of disasters.
Crowds of women thereupon attacked the churches, pulled down the doors and took possession of the pictures and statues of the saints, which they carried about as a protection against death.
Many people camped along the roads and in the fields, where they thought they would be safer than in the towns, defying the elements, though nearly blinded by ashes, wet to the skin by rain and terrorized by the gigantic curved flaming mass above, resembling a scimitar ready to fall upon them.
The atmosphere during the eruptions was oppressive and yellow with ashes from Vesuvius, causing a feeling of apprehension regarding what the future may hold in store for this city and its vicinity. The volcano was completely hidden in a dense mass of cinder-laden smoke, the only other signs of activity being frequent and very severe detonations and deep rumblings.
All the trains from and to Naples were delayed owing to the tracks being covered with cinders and telegraphic communication with all points was badly congested.
An excursion steamer attempting to reach Naples from the island of Capri had to return, as the passengers were being suffocated by the ashes.
The quantity of ashes and cinders thrown during the eruptions was unprecedented. An analysis showed this discharge to be chiefly composed of iron, sulphur and magnesia. When dry the whole region seemed to be under a gray sheet, but after a fall of rain it appeared to have been transformed into an immense lake of chocolate.
During the activity of the mountain several new craters had opened, especially on its north side and from which streams of lava flooded the beautiful, prosperous and happy land lying on the southeast shores of the Gulf of Naples.
The whole of Vesuvius district as far as Naples, Casserta and Castellammare became one vast desert. The high cone of the volcano was almost entirely destroyed having been swallowed up, so that the height of the mountain is now several hundred feet less than formerly. Its falling in caused a great discharge of red hot stones, flame and smoke.
Professor Di Lorenzo, the scientist and specialist in the study of volcanoes, estimated that the smoke from Vesuvius had reached the height of 25,000 feet. After one of the eruptions ashes from Vesuvius were noticeable in Sicily which is a large island near the extreme end of the peninsula on which Naples is situated and some 200 miles from the crater.