In this photo taken on Thursday 4 July, smoke billows from the volcano on the island of Stromboli, Italy (AP Photo/Salvatore Cavalli).

Tourists who fled when a volcano erupted on an Italian holiday island thought they were going to "die like in Pompeii’"

More than 1000 people fled as two explosions sent burning rocks hurtling through the air and molten lava flowing down the mountainside.

Holidaymakers and locals on the island of Stromboli off the toe of Italy, threw themselves into the sea or hid in caves.

Massimo Imbesi, 35, a merchant navy officer from Sicily, died after being hit by flying stones as he hiked up the mountain. 

His death is believed to be the first from volcanic activity in Europe for more than 30 years.

Brazilian man Thiago Takeuti, 35, who was hiking with him, said he became separated from Imbesi when the ‘terrible explosion’ rocked the island, adding: "I went back to try to find Massimo and he was there on the ground. There was gas, flames, stones coming down from everywhere."

Rescuers found large bruises on Imbesi where rocks had hit him, but said it may have been the toxic fumes which caused his death.

The village of Ginostra, which sits just below the volcano, was heavily damaged.

One tourist who fled on a private boat said: "I’ve never been so scared. We thought we would die like in Pompeii."

The Roman city of Pompeii and most of its inhabitants were buried under volcanic ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD.

British tourist Sarah Gabbott and her son Freddie were swimming when they heard the volcano erupt: "It sounded like a huge crack,’ she said. ‘I did fear for our lives because we didn’t know how long the eruption would go on."

The family from London, were among hundreds of tourists who fled on boats. 

Experts said the volcano was unlikely to erupt again soon because the two blasts were so big.

* Daily Mail

Watch: Volcano erupts on an Italian island