Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Eruption of Vesuvius – Terrific Scene

NAPLES, December 28. – The destruction of a city which numbered 23,000 inhabitants is so startling a fact that I trust I shall not weary you by sending some statistics which I have this week gathered on the spot.  Covered with snow, vomiting ashes still like a ten thousand horse power factory chimney, with a ruined city lying at its feet, such is the spectacle which Vesuvius at this moment presents.  Unable to restrain my curiosity to know what was passing behind the clouds of ashes which intervened between us and the mountain, I went down again on Tuesday last, and directed myself to the committee who had been sitting in permanence since the 8th instant.  The municipal building, a fine old historical edifice of the times of the Arragons, has been destroyed, so that the committee was sitting in a suppressed monastery on the outskirts of the town, and not on the bed of old lava. – The cloisters and the stairs were filled with squalid misery which come here for relief, and the Syndic and his coadjutors, to whose courtesy I am much indebted, gave me the following information.  Out of a population of 21,000, 15,000 are fugitives.  Between fifty and sixty houses have already fallen, and three hundred and twenty are falling, the rest are more or less injured.  Out of eleven churches four only are uninjured, but there is another fearful source of danger – the sulphurous exhalations which are emitted in every direction, and which render houses in other respects comparatively safe, uninhabitable.  By these exhalations, five or six persons, and all the animals, such as cats, dogs, mice and birds, and the fishes in the sea, have been killed.  In fact two thirds of the city have been destroyed.

The committee begged me to appeal to the British public on their behalf, at least to Italians resident in England, and then sent two of their members to accompany me again over the city.  I must confine myself to such new features as I have not yet described, and they are of great interest.  My companions took me through a narrow lane, on either side of which the houses were on the eve of falling, down to an orange garden belonging to one of them, at the furthest extremity of which gaped a crater twenty feet wide and as many deep.  Planks were thrown across, and getting upon them I looked in and saw the walls of a church which had been destroyed in 1798, graves which had given up their dead, for the skeletons had been removed as soon as discovered – and the frescoed walls of the inner chamber of some house.  The smell of sulphur was here strong, and almost insufferable, in the streets through which I afterwards passed.  Dead animals lay here and there and amidst these signs of mortality and sign posts of danger which met the eye at every turn, while to soil was still heaving beneath our feet, while Vesuvius was throwing out more violently than ever, and when at midnight only the poor who had returned had fled from their houses, alarmed by another shock, I met some persons coming in with their household goods on their backs.  A few steps brought me to the sea, which was boiling furiously for some distance, like a cauldron, not the effect as I thought first, of springs of fresh water gushing up, but of volcanic action, and the smell of the gasses escaping was so intense that I found it necessary, for safety, to cover my face with a handkerchief.  Here I met my friends Cappacci, Guiscardi and Palmieri, who had come over as a scientific commission to make investigations.  They bottled up the gas on the spot, which they reported to be carbonic acid and carburretted hydrogen.

How long the eruption might continue Palmieri ahd no means of calculating, it was going on as violently as ever, and his seismograph was always registering.  From Sunday until Monday morning at 5 a. m., there had been eight shocks, and from that time to when he spoke to me they had been continual.  The soil had risen five palms and the subsidence might be attended with great danger.  “Until this has taken place,” he said to my municipal conductors, “you must not think of rebuilding, and you must carefully note the fissures in the houses and the streets, to observe wither the approximate.”  I have said that the number of fugitives was 15,000 only, several thousand having returned to their houses on the confines of the bed of lava on which the great part of Torre is built.  One old woman I saw who had taken up her dwelling in a house which was rent from top to bottom, and almost leaning against the poles which were put up as props to the arches on which it rested.  I stopped and spoke to a thriving shopkeeper, who was looking out eagerly for customers. – “What can I do?” he said, “I have 20,000 ducats invested here, and I must look after them.”  Of the Carbineers I heard only golden opinions – their praise was in every man’s mouth, and I must express my opinion that even in England greater order could not have been preserved, fewer acts of violence committed, or that the Government and local authorities could have lavished more care and attention than have been displayed in Terro de Greco on this sad occasion.  General La Marmora has been down several times to inspect, and the National Bank, according to the last night’s Gazette, has contributed 5,000 lire and opened a subscription for the relief of the poor. – {Cor. Of the London Times.

– Published in The Burlington Weekly Hawk-Eye, Burlington, Iowa, Saturday, February 8, 1862, p. 2

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