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Skulls exploded. Blood boiled. That’s how Mount Vesuvius killed some victims, study says

Casts made from the hollows left when the bodies of the Mount Vesuvius volcano victims disintegrated show how people were caught fleeing the eruption in 79 A.D.. They were part of the exhibit “Pompeii, Stories from an Eruption,” at the Field Museum in 2005. Oct. 18, 2005.
Casts made from the hollows left when the bodies of the Mount Vesuvius volcano victims disintegrated show how people were caught fleeing the eruption in 79 A.D.. They were part of the exhibit “Pompeii, Stories from an Eruption,” at the Field Museum in 2005. Oct. 18, 2005. Associated Press

Italian archeologists have found evidence that no matter how gruesome we thought death was for the Roman citizens killed when Mount Vesuvius blew its fiery top in 79 A.D., the way those poor souls died was even more frightening.

Think, for a second, about that scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” where the Nazi’s face melts right off his skull.

It was that level of horror, contends new research published in the journal PLOS One.

The eruption “generated such extreme heat that it caused victims’ skulls to explode, their blood to boil, and their muscles, flesh and brains to be rapidly replaced with ash,” writes CNET technology website.

Until now, it’s been thought that “the helpless residents of Pompeii and Herculaneum were ... bludgeoned by hot ash avalanches that asphyxiated them while preserving their bodies for centuries afterward,” according to Popular Science.

“At least, that’s what we always assumed. It turns out, many people probably died in ways that were more (grisly) than we imagined.”

When the two-day eruption was over, it had claimed nearly 2,000 lives, Gizmodo reports.

Mount Vesuvius, about 8 miles from Naples, Italy — home to about 3 million people — is still active. “It’s been called Europe’s time bomb,” The Independent, a British newspaper, wrote two years ago.

In 79 A.D., the volcano roared to life with energy 100,000 times “more powerful than both atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War II,” Popular Science describes.

It blanketed nearby towns with ash, followed by streams of molten gas and rock called pyroclastic surge, according to Popular Science.

It’s well-documented that those fast-moving flows killed scores of people, notes Gizmodo, but the new research says many victims died even “before the subsequent ash-filled pyroclastic flows reached them.”

Archaeologists examined 100 samples from dozens of skeletal remains of people who sought refuge in “waterfront chambers along the beach” at Herculaneum who were “suddenly engulfed by the abrupt collapse of the rapidly advancing first pyroclastic surge,” the study says.

Studies like this not only add to the historical record but also provide “fundamental information useful for the assessment of volcanic risk in densely populated areas,” the lead author of the study, scientist Pier Paolo Petrone from the Federico II University Hospital in Naples, Italy, told Popular Science.

In 2016, a new sizing-up of the volcano’s modern-day threat “added 63 towns and villages to the list of municipalities that lie in the danger zone,” and could experience “falling ash and rocks” should it erupt, the Independent reported.

The 600,000 people in the so-called “red zone” closest to the volcano live with the risk posed by possible pyroclastic flows of scalding gas and ash, the newspaper said.

“It’s estimated that Vesuvius experiences a major eruption once every 2,000 years or so — a troubling tidbit of information, given that it last erupted 1,999 years ago,” Gizmodo writes.

“Now, that doesn’t mean an explosion is imminent, but it is a cause of serious concern. Fortunately, local officials have an emergency plan should the worst happen again.”

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