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Burn, Baby, Burn

The Discovery Channel's "Pompeii: The Last Day" is grisly fun.

11:00 PM, Jan 27, 2005 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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THERE IS NO WORD in Latin for "volcano."

But that didn't stop Mount Vesuvius from erupting and burying the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum under 141 trillion cubic feet of volcanic debris on the 24th of August in AD 79.

And thank goodness for that. Horrifying loss of life notwithstanding, the story of the buried city of Pompeii has long fueled the imaginations and writings of those who know of it. The latest to take the sensational bait have done a fantastic job. The Discovery Channel and the BBC recently co-produced a kick-ass documentary about the 24 hours of volcanic eruption, and the ruins of the towns nearly 2,000 years later--scheduled to air this Sunday at 9:00 p.m. on the Discovery Channel.

(Admit it, you weren't going to be doing anything better on Sunday at 9:00 p.m., so plan to watch.)

The obligatory "life as usual" opening scenes are adequate: We learn about the gladiator Celadus, who graffiti labels the "heart-throb of the girls," and we see "one house overlooking the harbor" where "slaves were about to serve hard-boiled eggs, bread, salad, small cakes, and fruit." Peevish masters mistreat large-eyed slave girls wearing gold snake armbands, and political slogans fly in anticipation of upcoming city council elections. All of these details are drawn from artifacts, which flash on the screen between reenacted scenes.

But the documentary really comes into its own when recreating and describing the number and variety of grisly volcano-related deaths.

The eruption--which buried and preserved the town and 5,000 of its inhabitants--was unusual. So unusual, in fact, that the vivid description of the event as seen from across the Bay of Naples recorded by Pliny the Younger was disbelieved by scientists and historians until very recently. Rather than the "usual" picturesque cascading lava, the people of the Campania region (including the Pompeiians) saw an enormous plume rise from the volcano at supersonic speed, they ran as they were pelted by tiny pumice stones formed in the stratosphere from cooling magma and ash, and finally they were overcome by six pyroclastic surges--each a "glowing red cloud" tumbling down the side of the volcano in an "avalanche of hot, dry ash, rock fragments and gas" traveling at 100 k.p.h. (62 m.p.h.) at a temperatures in excess of 815 degrees Celsius (1,500 degrees Fahrenheit).

These pyroclastic surges provide some of the best material in the documentary. The first surge caught residents of Herculaneum on the beach, where they were hoping for rescue from the sea. "The people on the beach died of thermal shock. At such high temperatures, their skin vaporized and their bones were incinerated. Their brains boiled, then exploded. Even today, their skulls are still stained from the red cerebral matter that poured out. Like glass that shatters under boiling water, their bones snapped in half and their teeth disintegrated."

Much later, around 7:00 a.m. on the morning after the eruption began, the third pyroclastic surge reached the north wall of Pompeii. People nearby would have "felt its burning 400 degree Celsius (750 degree F) heat" and "fallen victim to the choking, foul cloud of gasses that followed. . . . Carbon dioxide, evil-smelling hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen chloride and sulfur dioxide, the gas cloud put the weakest out of their misery."

One of those put out of his misery was Pliny the Elder, on site from neighboring Minesum, first in the spirit of scholarly inquiry, and then as part of an abortive rescue mission. His nephew, Pliny the Younger, left a complete eyewitness account of the eruption. The two Plinys gave their name to this type of volcanic activity; it is now known as a Plinian eruption

We know about the details of death as well as life in Pompeii's last hours because many of those caught in the eruption left impressions in the volcanic debris, still visible long after their bodies disintegrated. These impressions were filled with plaster during modern archaeological excavations to produce life-size casts. The casts tell us about the unique experiences of death: "Because death was slightly slower than in the Herculanean boatsheds, people writhed in agony on the ground, unable to breathe, which accounts for the contorted positions of some of the bodies."

But it's not until later on the second day's morning--after 15 hours of volcanic eruption--that the biggest pyroclastic surge heads straight for Pompeii. The most horrifying deaths are described thus: "Hot ash blasted in through chinks in doors and windows, holes in roofs. It killed most of the remaining inhabitants of Pompeii, but death was not instantaneous. With the first breath, hot gas and ash were inhaled, causing the lungs to fill with fluid: it was like swallowing fire. The second breath took in more ash, which mixed with the fluid to create a wet cement in the lungs and windpipe. The third inhalation thickened the cement, causing the victims to gasp for breath--and suffocate."

If all this hasn't been grisly enough, there's more volcano-related fun at the apocalyptically named promotional site for the documentary, thelastdayiscoming.com, including a "build your own volcano" animation.

The special uses a documentary-style voiceover, with the stories of several fictional composites (and a few real historical figures) re-enacted in well-presented scenes. Occasionally the dialogue is a little weak, as when a pregnant woman bemoans her family's decision not to flee: "I hate being shut in," she says. "It won't be forever," her mother weightily replies. But for a documentary, the characters are positively three-dimensional and the actors are quite good at packing in a lot of emoting into their limited screen time.

When the documentary aired in Britain last October, it garnered 10 million viewers. A big advertising blitz in U.S. cities should result in similarly high viewership here. After all, who can ignore ads that show an enormous fire burst and ask, in menacing text, "Would You Survive?"

Though there was some evidence that they remembered Vesuvius had once been active, the people who lived at its base thought it was just an ordinary mountain. It had not erupted in 1,800 years.

With this in mind, the documentary ends on a sinister note: "Plinian eruptions of this scale only happen every 2,000 years. The next one is due."

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a reporter for The Weekly Standard.