Pompeiians had no time even to suffocate, they just died of heat

Posted Nov 4, 2010 by Subir Ghosh
The spectacle of Vesuvius's explosion over Pompeii spawned legends that gradually became myths over time ― like the belief that people died of ash suffocation. But scientists now have refuted this widely accepted contention.
A depiction of the eruption which buried Pompeii (from BBC s Pompeii: The Last Day).
A depiction of the eruption which buried Pompeii (from BBC's Pompeii: The Last Day).
Wikimedia Commons
Recent research found that people didn't suffocate; they died of heat surges.
Pictures of the lifelike poses of many victims at Pompeii—seated with face in hands, crawling, kneeling on a mother's lap—have left a lasting impression on many, giving rise to speculations, assumptions. The idea that was bought by most was that most of the victims of the 79 AD eruptions were asphyxiated by volcanic ash and gas.
Volcanologists from Italy's National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology have not been buying the idea. They have analysed layers of buried volcanic ash and rock, then fed the data into a computer simulation of the Mount Vesuvius eruption. Their conclusion is simple—most died instantly of extreme heat, with many casualties shocked into a sort of instant rigor mortis.
The scientists—Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo, Pierpaolo Petrone, Lucia Pappalardo and Fabio M Guarino—have published their myth-shattering findings in the open-access journal PLoS ONE.
Their study, however, was not as simplistic as it sounds. They adopted a multidisciplinary volcanological and bio-anthropological approach to their study of mortalities. What they found was fascinating.
The Vesuvius volcano, some 10 km from Pompeii, produced six different pyroclastic surges—fast-moving, ground-hugging waves of hot, toxic gases and ash. Most of the fatalities, in fact, happened during the fourth surge—the first to reach Pompeii—even though this surge was relatively slow and not that laden with ash.
Ash-deposit analysis and computer simulations of the surges showed that Pompeii was at the edge of the flows' reach. In other words, the fourth surge was too weak to wreck buildings. It also carried relatively little ash, leaving behind a sediment layer only about 3cm deep.
 Garden of the Fugitives . Plaster casts of victims still in situ; many casts are in the Archaeologi...
"Garden of the Fugitives". Plaster casts of victims still in situ; many casts are in the Archaeological Museum of Naples.
Wikimedia Commons
So what killed the people of Pompeii?
Mastrolorenzo and his team say that during the surge temperatures both outdoors and indoors rose up to 300°C [570°F] and more, enough to kill hundreds of people in a fraction of a second, even though they may been sheltered in buildings.
And these findings might well pave way for new myths. But then, that's what Pompeii-Vesuvius is all about — it never ceases to fascinate either poets or scientists.