The Boston Herald
Sunday, September 12, 2004
CATASTROPHIC CONNECTIONS, by Rosemary Herbert
CHARLES PELLEGRINO has scrutinized the ruins of ancient Pompeii. He has also studied the physics of the forces at play when the Twin Towers collapsed on September 11, 2001. Now, in a volume loaded with scientific fact and often poetic prose, he ruminates on what he calls "strange connections" between catastrophic events in times ancient and contemporary. The result is an out-of-the-ordinary volume about some utterly extraordinary events.
There is no way to read this book except with a sense of wonder. And this is only enhanced by the author's talent for using contemporary objects to help readers picture incredible forces and events. In describing the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, Pellegrino writes, "Initially, magma is jetted out of Vesuvius at the rate of 1,000 tons per second (the approximate mass of 1,000 automobiles per second)."
Next, he likens to the frothy cream in cappuccino, the layers of lighter and heavier elements in the volcano's magma. When the expelled material is laid on the earth's surface, he explains, "Like a Vesuvian upside-down cake, the strata (or succession of layers) occurring within the earth are found inverted upon the earth."
Many of the details as revealed and understood by modern forensic anthropologists are horrific. Pompeii's sister city, Herculaneum, basked in sunshine throughout the early part of the volcano's eruption. But then it was struck by "surge clouds" from the blast.
Many doomed citizens sought shelter under the marina on the Bay of Naples. Then, the "first surge cloud... shattered their teeth," Pellegrino writes, "and, before their nerves could respond, vaporized the people to the bone - all three hundred of them, all within two-tenths of a second."
Some of those who had more time to realize they were in harm's way behaved surprisingly. Pellegrino reports that Pliny the Younger resisted running from the disaster in order to go on reading a book. He was exhibiting an urge to "nest" that sometimes happens in response to obviously impending danger.
It may seem a leap to bring in the collapse of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers here, until Pellegrino tells us some of the same volcanologists who had studied Pompeii "were drawn to the crater in Manhattan, where they became forensic [archaeologists]." They even laid to rest one of the great controversies that shadowed the aftermath of the September 11 rescue efforts - the alleged looting of a clothing store by some firefighters.
Pellegrino explains, strange clusters of order sometimes occur within chaos. Thus, new clothing was found "still folded and tagged and sometimes still stacked," in the vicinity of Ground Zero - but not in the cab of the fire truck in question.
"To a few, it did not seem possible that order could occur in the midst of total chaos, without the meddling of human hands," Pellegrino writes. "Puzzlement led, inevitably, to embellishment. And embellishment led, months later, to a firsthand eyewitness participant's account - at once strange and cruel - professing that the cab of 4 Truck, when it was opened by excavators, was 'filled with dozens' of those 'tagged, folded, and stacked' jeans." He says the excavation of the truck was filmed from start to finish, revealing no such load of jeans.
Rosemary Herbert is the Boston Herald's book review editor.
Pellegrino's fascinating book, Ghosts of Vesuvius - is full of insights into science and history. No insight is more important than the one that connects the father and son in Pompeii to Harry Ramos [in the World Trade Center]. Archaeologists unearth bones and uncover civilizations, but "the bones speak still of our common humanity," Pellegrino writes, "speak still, from their last second of life, of love and mutual tenderness."
- The Sunday Oregonian
Imagine natural history as written by Walt Whitman.
- Sunday edition, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
(William Morrow; August 2004; 480 pages; 60 b&w drawings
“A stunning and magical alchemy of science, philosophy, Bible study and brilliantly detailed on-the-scene reporting, Pellegrino’s book moves effortlessly from the sweeping grandeur of infinite time and space to the briefest moment in the lives of ordinary men... a book to be savored, reread and passed along to future generations.” - STARRED Publishers Weekly review
VARIETY March 2004
CAMERON DISASTER PIC ERUPTS
Helmer, Fox Explode Over Vesuvius Book: If it's not one disaster for director James Cameron, it's another. After sinking the Titanic for movie-going audiences around the world, the Oscar-winning Helmer and his Lightstorm Entertainment have now snatched up the rights to Charles Pellegrino’s upcoming book, Ghosts of Vesuvius, which gives a forensic archaeological account of the devastation wreaked by Vesuvius nearly 2000 years ago. Newly excavated artifacts from the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, combined with new forensic techniques, will now help Cameron and his team to verify the facts of the cities during their destruction.
By Michael Fleming
James Cameron is getting back into the epic-sized disaster game: 20th Century Fox and Cameron's Fox-based Lightstorm Entertainment have optioned screen rights to Ghosts of Vesuvius, an upcoming Harper-Collins book by Charles Pellegrino about the volcanic eruption that leveled Pompeii in 79 AD.
Cameron will produce Vesuvius with his Lightstorm cohorts Jon Landau and Rae Sanchini. Helmer will wait before deciding whether he will direct the fictional look at Pompeii and its destruction that will be culled from Pellegrino's non-fiction book.
Pellegrino is a scientist-author who became acquainted with Cameron through two books he wrote about the Titanic; Helmer wrote the introduction to one of them, Ghosts of the Titanic - which also became a [basis for] a Cameron film.
The stories of the iceberg collision that doomed the Titanic in 1912 and the volcano eruption that killed so many in antiquity share an air of archaeological and scientific intrigue.
The volcano was estimated to have unleashed a blast [1,000] times more powerful than the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima.
Just as Cameron was able to verify how the Titanic broke apart by taking deep-sea trips to film the damaged hull, there are equally compelling relics that bear witness to the ancient volcanic tragedy, such as facial molds made from corpses found encased in ash cocoons.
The Lightstorm trio will sift through the book to create a fictionalized account, which likely will tie into the politics of Rome, an empire whose demise may have been hastened by the devastation of Vesuvius.
Cameron has long said he will make his next feature using the 3-D technology he employed in Ghosts of the Abyss, but has not yet said what that film will be. The pic is expected to shoot later this year or early next year, and will be his first dramatic feature since Titanic.
POPULAR SCIENCE BOOK OF THE MONTH
CATYCLISMS CONNECTED: Sometimes it takes an outsider to bring new perspectives to a field of study. Charles Pellegrino has made a career of this, skipping with omnivorous intensity between volcanology, archaeology, astrobiology and paleontology. In his new book, Ghosts of Vesuvius (William Morrow, $26), Pellegrino throws them all in and then some, tracing the physics of destruction at Pompeii back to the origins of the universe and forward to the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11.
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which buried some 20,000 Romans under several stories of ash and rocks in AD 79, is the focus of the book, but the author hardly confines himself to a single topic. In jumping from volcanic eruptions to stellar explosions, he comes across as a sort of bushwacking polymath, combining his mastery of scientific detail with a vivid imagination - even if certain questions might be better left to another book. (Do we really need to dwell on the Gnostic gospels?)
The most fascinating details are the connections between cataclysmic events. For example, much of the physics involved in the Vesuvius event also directed the collapse of the World Trade Center. The forces at work were remarkably similar, including roiling clouds of debris traveling at up to  miles an hour and pressures of 3 to 9 tons per square inch - equivalent to the force of a speeding.38-caliber bullet [per square inch]. And Pellegrino deftly explains how the collective force of tons of rocks or dust-laden air can crush one structure yet leave its neighbor eerily untouched. The ghosts in the title emerge heartrendingly in the books closing pages, in which survival accounts of the carnage on September 11th provide a human view of the incredible violence of massive disasters