One soldier rode his horse through the ashes reaching up to its flanks, calling out, “Who wants help?” He was rewarded by hearing a woman’s voice reply in weak tones and, springing from his horse, he floundered through the ashes to the ruined walls of a house from which the voice seemed to come. As he made his way through the soft, treacherous layer of scoriae which surrounded the destroyed habitation, and with difficulty worked his way toward the building the soldier shouted words of encouragement and, climbing over a heap of ruins and braving a toppling wall, entered the building. In the cellar he found the bodies of three children. Near them was a woman, barely alive, who by almost superhuman efforts for hours had succeeded in freeing herself from a mass of debris which had fallen upon her. The soldier picked the woman up in his arms and carried her to a place of safety. It was found that both legs were broken and that she had been badly crushed about the body.
Some extraordinary escapes from death took place. A man and his four children were rescued after having been lost in the ash-covered wilderness for fifty-six hours. They were terribly exhausted, and were reduced almost to skeletons.
Robert Underwood Johnson, one of the editors of the “Century Magazine”, who happened to be in Rome at the time of the eruption, made one of a party who ventured as near the scene of destruction as they could safely approach. From his graphic story of his experiences we copy some of the most interesting details.
“We caught a train for Torre Annunziata, three miles this side of Pompeii and two miles from the southern end of the wedge of lava which destroyed Bosco Trecase. We had a magnificent view of the eruption, eight miles away. Rising at an angle of fifty degrees, the vast mass of tumult roundness was beautifully accentuated by the full moon, shifting momentarily into new forms and drifting south in low, black clouds of ashes and cinders reaching to Capri. At Torre del Greco we ran under this terrifying pall, apparently a hundred feet above, the solidity of which was soon revealed in the moonlight. The torches of the railway guards added to the effect, but greatly relieved the sulphurous darkness.
“We reached Torre Annunziata at three in the morning. There was little suggestion of a disaster as we trudged through the sleeping town to the lava, two miles away. The brilliant moon gave us a superb view of the volcano, a gray-brown mass rising, expanding and curling in with a profile like a monstrous cyclopean face. But nothing in mythology gives a suggestion of the fascination of this awful force, presenting the sublime beauty above, but in its descent filled with the mysterious malignance of God’s underworld.
“We reached the lava at a picturesque cypress-planted cemetery on the northern boundary of Torre Annunziata. It was as if the dead had effectually cried out to arrest the crushing river of flames which pitilessly engulfed the statue of St. Anne with which the people of Bosco Reale tried to stay it, as at Catania the veil of St. Agathe is said to have stayed a similar stream from Mount Etna.