From The Daily Telegraph, October 25 2010
Pompeii victims 'killed by heat not suffocation'
The inhabitants of Pompeii, who died when Mt Vesuvius erupted nearly 2,000 years ago, were killed by intense heat rather than suffocation as previously thought, a new study of the disaster has claimed.
By Nick Squires in Rome
Published: 3:08PM BST 24 Oct 2010
Thousands of people in the Roman city were caught up in a firestorm in which they were exposed to temperatures of up to 1112F (600C), a team of Italian scientists believe.
The extraordinarily high temperatures would have killed fleeing inhabitants in just 10 seconds, according to the volcanologists and anthropologists from Naples, the city which is overshadowed by the volcano.
"Contrary to what was thought up until now, the victims didn't suffer a prolonged agony from suffocation, but rather died instantaneously from the exposure to high temperatures," the team wrote in a peer-reviewed science journal, PLoS ONE.
"Our findings reveal that neither asphyxia nor impact force, but heat, caused the deaths."
Red-hot clouds of gas and fine ash known as pyroclastic density currents flowed down the slopes of Vesuvius, engulfing Pompeii's frescoed villas, as well as its shops, public baths and brothels, where explicit erotic paintings and the customers' graffiti can still be seen.
"Field and laboratory study of the eruption products and victims indicate that heat was the main cause of death of people, previously supposed to have died by ash suffocation," the scientists said.
"Our results show that exposure to at least 250C [482F] hot surges at a distance of 10 kilometres from the vent was sufficient to cause instant death, even if people were sheltered within buildings."
Vesuvius had been rumbling for days when it finally erupted in AD79. Although thousands of people had already evacuated Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum, many others were unable or unwilling to leave and perished in the heat.
Visitors to the ancient sites can still see plaster casts of their contorted bodies at the moment in which they died, clinging to each other or burying their heads in their hands in a futile attempt to withstand the calamity.
Vesuvius remains one of the world's most dangerous volcanoes. The 1.5 million people who live in Naples and surrounding towns have learnt to ignore it but the sheer density of population means that any future eruption would be catastrophic.
The last major one was in March 1944 but the Osservatorio Vesuviano, which has monitored its activity since 1841, believes the next eruption could come at any time.