August 24th, A.D. 79 – Southern Italy
My first few journeys through time are now something of a haze to me. The initial shock and disbelief, assumption of my own insanity, etc., added to my not keeping a written account of them, makes this the first of my travels through time of which I have a clear record and memory. Besides which, it was pretty damn hard to forget. I awoke in an alleyway, unable to discern anything about my location. Almost immediately the ground beneath me began to shake. After maybe half a minute it stopped and I made my way out of the alley and emerged into a busy marketplace. The first thing I noticed was that no one seemed surprised or worried about the earth shaking mere moments before. The second thing I noticed was that clearly I had come rather far back in time. The women I saw were mostly all wearing long pleated dresses draped around their bodies, pinned together with brooches. Most of the men wore tunics under a cloak, with the occasional well-to-do fellow wearing a toga. It seemed fairly likely that I was somewhere in the Roman Empire. All around me were what seemed to be fast food stalls, with customers standing at L-shaped brick counters ordering food. I approached a man as he paid for some kind of fried fish covered in a very smelly fish sauce, served with coarse bread.
I should point out that this was the journey during which I discovered an important quirk of my time travel – I am able to understand and communicate with anyone, when or wherever I find myself. I haven’t given this mystery as much thought as I probably should, but I figure it’s hardly less credible than bouncing around through time and space.
I explained to the diner that I had just arrived in town and asked him about the apparent earthquake. His reply left me stunned. He told me that the earth tremors were not particularly alarming since they were quite common…here in Pompeii. Oh dear. Naturally I was immediately curious what year it was, but since the Romans did not use AD and BC, any answer would have been quite meaningless to me. Just then another earthquake hit. It did not last long, but it was far more violent than the first. The people’s reactions made it clear that this was worse than the run-of-the-mill tremors to which they had grown accustomed. Many were knocked to the ground, and when it was over people began to hurry off in all directions, presumably to homes or loved ones. I wanted to get a good view of my surroundings and I asked the diner, before he ran off, to show me the highest point in town. His directions led me to a rooftop above the third floor of a nearby building, which afforded me a clear view in all directions. There it was. Five miles or so in the distance, Mount Vesuvius loomed threateningly and, rather worryingly, there was steam emanating from the top. Having been here in the past (or the future I suppose), something else immediately caught my eye. The Pompeii I had visited was quite far inland, but here the sea was just a few hundred meters away and I could tell I was in a thriving seaport.
Just then, with a huge bang, my fears were realized. I had traveled back to a rather bad day for Pompeii. A huge cloud of ash exploded from the top of Vesuvius, shooting far up into the air and forming a mushroom cloud. Within a few minutes the cloud was at least ten miles high. As I looked down from the building I saw Pompeii’s residents doing pretty much the same as me. There was no real fear or panic. They were just staring up at the cloud in amazement. With no knowledge of volcanoes they saw no real reason to fear anything. As for myself, I was rather surprised. Not knowing too many details of Pompeii’s destruction I was expecting a river of lava to be flowing down towards the town. At no point, however, would there be any lava.
I had noticed quickly that the wind was blowing the cloud towards Pompeii, and now, about thirty minutes after the explosion, it was beginning to obscure the sun. Day turned into night, and now people were definitely beginning to panic. On the streets below me people were running in all directions, and at this point ash began to rain down on the town. Luckily there was a small structure here on the roof, raised several feet high and reachable by a ladder. Perhaps some kind of lookout post. It allowed me to have a small roof over my head while still witnessing the events through the open doorway. I would soon be grateful for this small roof, as it was not only ash that was falling from the cloud. Mixed in with the ash that constantly fell there was another, fairly harmless, substance. It looked like grey pebbles, but was much lighter. These pebbles even floated when they landed in a fountain on the street below. But the cloud had another gift for the town that was anything but harmless. Mixed in with the ash and pebbles were larger and much harder rocks. And with the height of the cloud from which they fell, they had to be plummeting at over a hundred miles an hour. I saw people in the street below felled as these rocks smashed into their heads. That was when the screaming started. Until now it had been a more controlled panic, but the control was now gone. Thousands of people were in the streets, fleeing, screaming in terror. Some called out for parents, while others sought children or spouses. Many raised their hands and pleaded to the Gods, while others were sure there were no more Gods and this was the end of the world.
Over the next few hours the ash continued to fall. I had seen people going into houses, presumably thinking that they could ride out the storm. Others had fled the city, some into the surrounding countryside and some had headed to the port to try to escape by sea. Now, several hours after the explosion, the streets were mostly deserted. The few people I did see venturing outdoors had taken the ingenious step of tying pillows to their heads. Still the ash kept falling and now it was thick on the roofs. Millions of tons of volcanic debris had been shot into the air, and the weight on the roofs was taking its toll. Looking around I began to see roofs cave in. I could also see doors shaking as they were pushed from the inside, people trying to escape buildings before the roofs caved in on them. But the ash was piled at least three feet high outside the doors now and they could not open them. They were trapped. Some were able to jump from windows on upper floors, but many others either could not or would not.
Through the night the ash and rocks kept falling, the pile rising disturbingly close to me in my perch. My throat was incredibly dry as all the moisture in the air disappeared. Breathing through the ash-filled air grew harder all the time. Then, as the light of dawn fought with the cloud of ash, and partially lightened the darkness, the real horror began. After hours of Vesuvius shooting its innards in a vast column miles into the air, the sheer weight of it all caused the column to collapse. Millions of tons of rock and ash and superheated gas came surging down the side of the volcano in an avalanche of destruction and death. It seemed to be traveling somewhere in the vicinity of a hundred miles per hour. It was a truly terrifying sight, but I soon realized with relief that the flow would not quite reach Pompeii. Another town a couple of miles closer to the mountain, however, was not so lucky. I saw the flow surge through the town, partially burying it and without doubt killing every living thing within it. Looking out to sea I saw the water being sucked away, taking with it people who had hoped to escape by sea and leaving behind fish trapped on land. As it began to return towards the shore I realized that I was witnessing a small tsunami.
A couple of hours later it happened again, and, soon after, once more. The eruption cloud collapsed under its own weight and another avalanche of superheated death surged down the mountain’s slope. Each one of these flows was getting progressively closer to the walls of Pompeii. I was sure that the third one would be the end, for Pompeii and for me. But it stopped just short. Down below, the ash covered the town like snow, now ten feet high in the streets, and I was amazed to see a few people moving about on top of it. But not for long. I heard a huge rumble and turned back to face the volcano. A fourth surge was on its way down and I knew right away that this one was big and fast enough to breach the city walls and cover the town. Both terrified and mesmerized by the power of the incoming surge and my imminent demise, I jumped down from my perch and watched in awe as the flow passed the walls and hurtled towards me. I felt the terrible heat and smelled the noxious fumes from a few hundred meters away, and just as I was sure my skin would burn off, I felt a terrible pain as one of the rocks from the ash cloud smashed into the top of my head and I blacked out.
With an intense sense of relief I awoke, in my own time and in one piece. And with a Hell of a bump on the top of my head. Obviously it was an indescribably amazing experience, but I’m really rather hoping that not all of my travels are going to put me in mortal peril.
Images courtesy of BBC – “Pompeii: The Last Day”