Italy's Volcanoes: The Cradle of Volcanology

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Frequently asked questions about Etna
How many people have been killed by eruptions of Etna?


This is one of the questions to be answered most easily. Etna is definitely NOT a killer volcano. Very few people have been killed by eruptions of Etna: a detailed study of all original sources described in "Etna and Man" has revealed that in recorded history (which goes back to about 1500 B.C.) there have been 77 confirmed deaths that can be directly attributed to eruptions of Etna. This low number is mostly due to the fact that Etna's eruptions are rarely violently explosive, and lava flows move slowly allowing people to leave long before the lava front arrives at their homes. Virtually all cases of human fatalities at Etna are due to the fact that humans were in areas where they should not have been in that moment, like the nine tourists who were killed in September 1979 near Bocca Nuova by a vent-clearing phreatic explosion. That event had been preceded by similar phreatic explosions during the days before and was characteristic of the volcano's summit crater behavior in a period after a flank eruption. A strikingly similar incident (with two deaths) occurred in April 1987 at the SE Crater, and another is known to have occurred at the NE Crater on 2 August 1929 when two people were killed by a phreatic (?) explosion.

The most serious incident occurred during an eruption on the W flank in 1843 when 60 forest workers killed in 1843 near Bronte in a phreatic explosion caused when a lava flow moved over a water reservoir, causing instantaneous evaporation and explosive expansion. Fatalities are also reported in various sources (all of which are secondary) in the case of the 1928 eruption which destroyed the town of Mascali; these sources report up to five people killed, including an elderly couple caught asleep when a lava flow invaded and destroyed their home. However, a thorough literature research and interviews with eyewitnesses of the eruption by Duncan et al. (1996) revealed that there were no deaths during that eruption and the reports about fatalities were evidently derived from rumours picked up by the foreign press (A.M. Duncan, personal communication; Duncan et al. 1996). Mascali was orderly evacuated prior to destruction and its residents found accomodation mainly at their relatives' homes. The 1928 eruption was similar to the 1981 eruption on the NW flank in being characterized by high effusion rates and in occurring outside the areas of frequent flank eruptions, but nonetheless the advancing lava flows left enough time not only for evacuation, but many people salvaged furniture and removed even the rooftiles of their doomes houses.

Widely distributed literature attributes many deaths (up to 20,000 in some sources) to the 1669 eruption whose lava flow destroyed parts of Catania. This information also popped up again in newspapers during the summer 2001 eruption. Such reports are usually vastly exaggerated even where describing the magnitude of destruction in Catania which was by no means completely buried by the lava flow (Pagnano 1992). It is evident that there is some confusion with the devastating earthquake that struck the city only 24 years after the eruption; this event did indeed transform the city into a heap of debris, killing two-thirds of its inhabitants, and causing death and destruction all over southeastern Sicily. The 1669 eruption is not known to have killed anybody, neither in Catania nor elsewhere. The lava flow that issued from craters near the town of Nicolosi on the S flank arrived at Catania only one month after the beginning of the eruption. Can anybody imagine those poor residents of Catania waiting a full month to be buried by a lava flow?

What has been said before is in striking contrast with the number of people killed on Etna in other circumstances during recent years. Since 1980, two people were killed by eruptive activity, but since 1995 alone, at least 5 people were killed by lightning or by other causes. This trend seems to be rising, and the more people will die or get injured on the volcano, the more severe will be the access restrictions.

Next Question: Is it safe to climb to Etna's summit?

Copyright © Boris Behncke, "Italy's Volcanoes: The Cradle of Volcanology"

Page set up on 17 November 1997, last modified on 16 September 2001
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