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Prelude To Doomsday

July 2024
29min read

While the volcano rumbled, lovely little St. Pierre slumbered on. It awoke only to die—in a terrible preview of nuclear holocaust

“Behold, there ariseth a little cloud out of the sea, like a man’s hand.”

—I Kings 18:44


Devastation by atomic bomb has been known only to our own generation, but on occasions past, nature unassisted has produced effects startlingly like it. Strangely enough, we have had—in this hemisphere and this century—a very real preview of the fate which man’s ingenuity may hold in store for him. The time was 1902; the place was the Caribbean island of Martinique. St. Pierre, a handsome city of nearly 30,000 souls, was instantaneously obliterated in a manner so similar to a nuclear explosion that it provides a chilling foretaste of what might, in a nuclear age, happen to other cities. And its destruction is perhaps the only historic example—certainly the only instance on a large scale—of the utter extinction, within the space of a few heartbeats, of a unique civilization, a way of life that was both singular and irreplaceable. The story of this lightning-quick extinction is not fantasy, not a thriller of science fiction, not an imaginary projection of scientific possibilities. This happened.

Martinique, a tropical island with a romantic history embracing piracy, luxury, feats of war, and elegantly mannered living—birthplace of Josephine, Napoleon’s empress—was little known to Americans in 1902. A prized possession of France since the seventeenth century, it lay at the mid-point of a crescent of picturesque islands, the Lesser Antilles, strewn like steppingstones from the Virgins, on the north, almost to the South American mainland and dividing the Atlantic Ocean from the Caribbean Sea. Martinique, roughly forty-five miles long and twenty miles wide at its broadest point, is extremely mountainous, its coasts are indented deeply with bays and many river mouths, above which rises a jumble of interlacing peaks and rounded hills, or mornes; profound, jagged ravines separate these heights. Every inch of the island, from the shoreline up to the loftiest pitons, in 1902, was mantled with verdure, primitive forests alternating with plantations of sugar cane, tobacco, coffee, cacao. The junglelike forests extended even to the tip of the highest peak, Mount Pelée, 4,428 feet above the sea; its massively buttressed base occupied the entire northern end of the island.

Lafcadio Hearn in 1887 called St. Pierre, the island’s most populous town, “the sweetest, queerest, darlingest little city in the Antilles,” and fifteen years later it had not altered much. It nestled at Pelée’s southern foot, on the western (Caribbean) shore, in the lee of mountains which sheltered it from boisterous trade winds blowing steadily off the Atlantic. Viewed from the sea or from the heights that swept up steeply at its back, the little metropolis was enticingly picturesque. The houses, of stone and stucco, formed a narrow ribbon of color stretching two miles along the rim of a usually placid roadstead, where the land shelved away so rapidly that huge ships anchored within a few yards of the shingly beach. The houses, two and three stories high, with red-tiled roofs, were painted lemon yellow or gay orange, against which the bright green or blue slatted shutters, the only covering for the glassless windows, stood out vividly. The streets were narrow, to shut out the blazing sun; two main thoroughfares extended north and south, crossed by short up-and-downhill side streets, many of which bore poetic, fanciful names, such as the Street of Precipices, the Street of Friendships, and Climb to-Heaven Street (Rue Montau-Ciel). These transverse streets dropped away to the harbor on one hand, and on the other struggled up wooded bluffs that formed a luxuriant backdrop for the town. Some of the streets were so inclined that they were laid in steps, the stones of the pavements mossy and black with age.

Along the principal north-south artery ambled a primitive tramway, and there were electric lights at the corners. But a more striking feature was the continual tinkle and rustle of cool, clear mountain water rippling through runnels beside the narrow sidewalks, sweetening the air and refreshing doorstep-sitters. This was the very voice of the city, the music of running water, and it was seldom stilled.

Hearn passed two years in St. Pierre and recorded his fascinated impressions:

A quaint, whimsical, wonderfully colored little town … Palm trees rise from courts and gardens into a warm blue sky,—indescribably blue,—that appears to touch their feathery heads. And all things, within and without the yellow vista, are steeped in a sunshine electrically white,—in a radiance so powerful that it lends even to the pavements of basalt the glitter of silver ore.

The population held him spellbound: it differed from that of any other place or time:

Everybody in a costume of more than Oriental picturesqueness … Astonishments of half-breed beauty … Men wearing only white canvas trousers, and immense hats of bamboo grass,—men naked to the waist and muscled like sculptures. Some are very black: others are of strange and beautiful colors: there are skins of gold, of brown bronze, and of ruddy bronze. The stones whisper under the naked feet. Women pass in robes of brilliant hues,—women of the color of fruit, orange-color, banana-color,—women wearing turbans with just such burning yellow as bars the belly of a wasp … The warm air is thick with the scents of sugar and cinnamon,—with odors of mangoes and custard-apples, of guava jelly and of fresh coconut milk,—a grand tepid wind enveloping the city in one perpetual perfumed caress.

These people of St. Pierre (Pierrotins) felt and were different from the other Martiniquais, the white creoles especially being a type apart. The city’s permanent population was about 28,000, including 6,000 to 8,000 whites, allied, for the most part, to colonial families that had been established on the island for generations. This alone would have made the city unique, for the people of all the West Indies, then as now, were overwhelmingly Negro or mixed-blood. Their city’s superiority the Pierrotins cheerfully expressed by their graciously ordered society, tightly knit by bonds of blood relationship, intermarriage, and shared inheritance. In spirit, tradition, and customs, the town was unalterably French, a fragment of seventeenth-century provincial France.

Because St. Pierre was the social and commercial capital, the wealth and activity of the island were concentrated there. By comparison, the political capital, Fort-de-France, situated on its own splendid bay eleven miles to the south, was dull and commonplace. Aristocratic dowagers smiled possessively that St. Pierre was the city of “nous autres,” of the landed white creoles; it had the reputation of being the least inhibited town in the Antilles.

Like all Martiniquais, the people of St. Pierre were intensely religious; the city was the seat of an imposing cathedral and several parish churches. For secular diversion there was a theater where acting troupes from France performed every winter, and also clubs, cafés, dancing societies, balls, picnics, swimming. The city boasted two banks, convents, seminaries, orphanages, a lycée that enjoyed highest accreditation, a college, factories, rum distilleries, and warehouses. St. Pierre was reasonably prosperous, exempt from the blight of decline that was pauperizing neighboring British islands; and its citizens were noted for courtesy, social ease, charm, and contentment.

Their volcano—La Montagne, familiarly—the Pierrotins treated with proprietary pride, as a sort of pet, a tamed lion. Some feeble volcanic activity had occurred in the eighteenth century, to be sure, but that was all but forgotten. Oldsters still recalled the harmless eruption of 1851, when a wide sweep of countryside was showered with powdered ashes; but the mountain’s primeval fires were assumed to be banked. Its flattened, cloud-beset crest was a spot for picnics; it was fun to swim in the clear lake on the peak, known as the Lac des Palmistes. A second basin, situated lower down on the side facing the city, had been dry for years and was called the Étang Sec.

Closer to the lake basins (geologists were not sure whether they were old craters) was the pretty resort of Morne Rouge, athwart a ridge at an elevation of 1,400 feet, from just east of which one could view both the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean; this garden spot was frequented by St. Pierre families during the hot months and was always cool. The fragrance of Morne Rouge’s roses greeted the approaching traveler half a mile off.

Coursing through deep, jagged gorges that furrowed the broad slopes of Mount Pelée were twenty-five streams, torrents, most of them, fed by vapors and rains on the summit. Down the southern face of the mountain (toward St. Pierre) ran the Rivière Blanche, so named for its milky iridescence, veering off in a westward direction just north of the city; the Rivière Seche; the Rivière des Pères, which bounded the city on the north: and the turbulent, shallow Roxelane, which cut noisily through the district called the Centre. The high banks of this stream were crowned with handsome villas and gardens. At the southern end of the city, known as the Mouillage, or mooring place, were long, cobbled quays, running almost to the Carbet River, beyond which lay the village of Carbet. Screening St. Pierre from the environs of Fort-de-France were the arresting triple peaks called the Pitons of Carbet, which attained almost the height of Pelée. These landmarks and rivers all were to acquire sinister notoriety in 1902, as were two rivers which rushed down the eastern slope of the volcano, the Falaise and the Capote, and the Rivière Prêcheur, which flowed off the northwestern descent to the Caribbean.

Such was the brilliantly lighted stage on which was to be enacted an unparalleled tragedy.

Although reports of that tragedy reached the United States almost at once—by May 10, 1902, the Senate had already passed an aid bill—the first official confirmation that a catastrophe of appalling magnitude had taken place on the nation’s very doorstep was a cable which the State Department in Washington received on Sunday, May 11, 1902. Its contents were transmitted to the President in the White House at once. Signed by United States Consul Aymé, stationed on the island of Guadeloupe, near Martinique, the message read:


The cable had been sent from Fort-de-France. The city wiped out was the “little Paris,” St. Pierre. Fragmentary reports dribbling to the press stated that not one person survived, that within a few seconds St. Pierre and all its people had ceased to exist. The destroying agent was the long-dormant volcano—Mount Pelée. But by what means this destructiveness had obliterated 30,000 human beings and annihilated their city the shocked world waited to hear.

President Theodore Roosevelt reacted to the consular alert with characteristic vigor, instructing the Secretaries of War, Navy, and Treasury to start relief measures at once, without regard for red tape. The U.S. cruiser Cincinnati, lying at Santo Domingo, and the Navy tug Potomac at San Juan, Puerto Rico, were ordered by the President to proceed to the disaster area under full steam. The Army had stores of food and clothing in its Philadelphia supply depot, but no transport available. Fortunately, the ship Dixie, a former freighter equipped to carry cargo, was at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, just back from a training cruise, and her Captain Berry was ordered to take aboard supplies as fast as they reached the dock and sail at the earliest possible moment. By that evening trainloads of foodstuffs, bedding, tents, clothing, and other supplies were rolling in from Philadelphia, and stevedores were straining to stow the shipment in the Dixie’s holds.

At noon Monday President Roosevelt asked Congress for an immediate appropriation of $500,000 for emergency assistance to the victims of the calamity; all Martinique and its 160,000 surviving souls might have to be evacuated, it was feared. Said the President in his urgent message to the Capitol:

One of the greatest calamities in history has befallen our neighboring island of Martinique … The city of St. Pierre has ceased to exist … The government of France … inform us that Fort-de-France and the entire island of Martinique are still threatened. They therefore request that, for the purpose of rescuing the people who are in such deadly peril and threatened with starvation, the government of the United States may send as soon as possible the means of transporting them from the stricken island.

Congress voted $200,000 on the spot, and set hearings to determine what larger sum might be needed when the full nature of the disaster could be learned. In an appeal for public funds, the President empowered postmasters to receive donations for relief of the victims; the Red Cross swung into action; the mayors of New York, Chicago, Boston, and other cities seconded the appeal: a national committee of prominent citizens took charge of chartering supply ships, detouring some at sea toward the inferno in the Antilles. And at nine thirty Wednesday evening the Dixie sailed, carrying 900,000 rations and vitally needed medical equipment, with doctors, army officers, reporters, and scientists. England, Germany, France, Italy, Denmark, Japan, Russia, and the Vatican eagerly followed the United States’ lead, and so unanimous was the response that one week later the Red Cross was able to announce that the first emergency had been surmounted successfully and no more contributions would be needed. Never, even in wartime, have the nations of the world responded with greater swiftness and generosity to a humanitarian appeal.

As skilled observers converged on the scene, the story of St. Pierre’s annihilation was pieced together. And these accounts employed phrases—such as allusions to a death-dealing “mushroom cloud” and to destructive energy of an immensity almost incalculable—which, had newspaper readers of 1902 been gifted with prescience, would have carried an added fearsomeness.


At four in the morning of the next Wednesday, May 21, steaming under a clear, starry sky, the Dixie came abreast of the northern tip of Martinique. Everyone aboard strained to make out Pelée’s formidable outline; but the devil mountain was shrouded from base to summit in a mantle of dense, dark vapor, above which rose a column of steam like an immense thunderhead half a mile high. Silently the Dixie continued to Fort-de-France.

St. Pierre, it was there learned, had not been overwhelmed without warning. Early in April some harmless volcanic activity had been noted by excursionists near the summit of Pelée—the appearance of furmaroles, or smoke holes, that gave off a faintly sulphurous vapor—but no great attention was paid to it; similar vents had appeared and disappeared in the past without causing anxiety. There was, however, much exasperated complaining about the inconsiderateness of Papa Pelée—his bad manners, in emitting such an odor.

On April 23 a light rain of cinders informed villagers on the southern and western slopes of the mountain of definite activity: sharp underground shocks were felt, and at first were mistaken for earthquakes; in St. Pierre dishes were knocked off shelves. No alarm was expressed, merely impatience over the discomfort, and it was expected that the gaseous exhalations would soon cease.

On April 25 the mountain awoke, and St. Pierre was enthralled by the wild spectacle of Pelée hurling a vast cloud charged with rocks and ashes straight upward from its summit, or from the basin of the Étang Sec. No anxiety was entertained, since the damage being done by the ejected material was trifling. In a routine letter to a correspondent in Bordeaux that day, a businessman mentioned casually that “old Pelée is smoking again this morning, the first time in fifty years.”

The next day a second eruption dusted the landscape with ash, and some inhabitants began to worry. The public authorities saw no reason for concern.

On April 27 a party of excursionists climbed the peak and found the Étang Sec, long a dry hollow, transformed into a lake six hundred feet across. On one side a cone or chimney of volcanic debris had been built up, standing perhaps fifty feet high; from it cascaded a steady stream of boiling water and stones, while deep underground there were sounds like a cauldron seething and boiling. The volcano had forced open a vent, but this was considered a scientific curiosity rather than a sign of impending danger.

No account of this excursion was published immediately, but it furnished gossip in the clubs and cafés; the consensus was that the opening would serve as an escape valve to ease the pressure of the heated mass inside the mountain, and thus was a guarantee that there would be no general eruption.

Nevertheless, the activity of the mountain continued to be vexatious. Toward the end of April, Mrs. Thomas T. Prentis, wife of the American consul in St. Pierre, wrote with mingled annoyance and confidence to her sister in Melrose, Massachusetts:

We can see Mount Pelée from the rear windows of our house, and although it is nearly four miles away we can hear the roar. The city is covered with ashes. The smell of sulphur is so strong that horses on the street stop and snort, and some of them drop in their harness and die from suffocation. Many of the people are obliged to wear handkerchiefs to protect them from the strong fumes of sulphur. My husband assures me that there is no immediate danger, and when there is the least particle of danger we will leave the place.

All this while, detonations resembling thunder occasionally shook the ground, and severe disturbances in the ocean’s floor were observed; cables were snapped.

On April 30 the Roxelane and Rivière des Pères suddenly became raging torrents, washing down masses of boulders and whole trees from the upper mountain. At the same time the coastal villages of Prêcheur and Ste. Philomè
ne, north of the city, received a steady rain of ashes. Fear was now kindled in these districts, lying on the westerly slope of the volcano; early on May 1, Monseigneur Parel, vicar general at Fort-de-France, officiating as ecclesiastical administrator while the bishop was in France, received a disquieting telegram from the priest at Prêcheur, saying: “Serious volcanic eruption; since morning we have been covered with ashes; we ask for prayers.”

On Friday, May 2, half an hour before midnight, the eruption suddenly assumed a more threatening aspect. Pierrotins were startled out of their sleep by terrifying detonations, like thunderous salvos fired by all the guns of all the battle fleets of the world; at the same time Mount Pelée shot upward a pillar of dense black smoke that was laced with brilliant lightning. Ominous rumblings accompanied a quivering of the earth. Alarmed citizens ran into the streets half-dressed to watch the awesome display. Fearing an earthquake, many left their homes for the rest of the night, taking refuge in open squares and courtyards. Ashes, meanwhile, were falling over the entire northern half of the island; even Fort-de-France, sixteen miles from the peak, was dusted with fine-grained pumice. On the volcano’s flanks country folk abandoned their cabins in terror and crowded into nearby villages, carrying a few belongings snatched up in haste. At Prêcheur the church was filled with praying, weeping men and women demanding absolution, convinced that their last hour had come.

Dawn disclosed St. Pierre buried under whitish ashes like new-fallen snow. All that day frightful detonations were heard at intervals of five or six hours, and the expediency of leaving the city was discussed publicly. However, almost nobody mustered sufficient determination to depart.

Up to this time, St. Pierre’s only newspaper, the afternoon daily Les Colonies, had barely mentioned the volcano’s tricks, devoting most of its attention to the really exciting news—the political campaign for electing two deputies to the French Parliament; the final voting was to take place in two weeks. In the issue of Thursday, May 1, the editor had accorded Pelée’s surprising activity devious recognition in the course of a notice about a proposed picnic on the mountain, which read, in part:

We remind our readers that the grand excursion to Mt. Pelée organized by members of La Société Gymnastique et de Tir (Gymnastic and Shooting Club) will take place next Sunday, May 4. … If the weather be fine, the excursionists will pass a day that they will long keep in pleasant remembrance.

The violent occurrences of the night of May 2 modified this editorial unconcern somewhat, and a few lines in the issue of Saturday, May 3, conveyed the intelligence that the proposed outings had been postponed indefinitely, “the crater being absolutely inaccessible.”

At the lycée and other schools, students were dismissed. Bell-ringers circulated through the streets directing householders to water the pavements in front of their doors to lay the dust. Attempts to drive toward Prêcheur failed when horses refused to budge, all traces of roads having been obliterated. Farm animals were reported dying of hunger and thirst. The Governor of Martinique, M. L. Mouttet, came from Fort-de-France on the cruiser Suchet to inspect the situation and arrange some provisional accommodation for the hundreds of refugees from Prêcheur and other northern towns who were crowding into the city. He ordered the military barracks to be thrown open for their use.

It had been hoped that Morne Rouge, high above St. Pierre, would be spared the ash rain because of the easterly winds sweeping across it, but it, too, was now covered with cinders, and its population was stricken by fear. During Friday night the priest, Father Mary, threw open the church, which a crowd quickly filled; all received communion, while outside the walls Pelée roared and rumbled.

In St. Pierre’s charming cathedral, scenes of panic were enacted, people of all stations in life, all colors, all ages, beseeching absolution with outstretched arms. In the churches priests baptized and heard confessions hour after hour. Families living in the suburbs or on nearby plantations moved to the city, and even Les Colonies conceded that “St. Pierre is in a state of agitation. The city is depressed.” Yet in spite of the volcano’s thundering, the populace waited for its angry mood to subside. Life went on much as usual, modified by unusual difficulties: in the market housewives chaffered over the few fresh vegetables on display, and bakers were harassed by complaints of gritty ashes in the bread.

During Saturday, the wind shifted and blew the never-ceasing ash cloud toward the north, giving St. Pierre a respite. News came that day that the Soufrière, on the island of St. Vincent, lying to the southward, was erupting, and fear of a destructive earthquake was intensified.

On Sunday, May 4, land communication between St. Pierre and the Prêcheur district was severed, and the ash rain fell so densely that boats skirting the coast feared to navigate through it. The sea was littered with dead birds. Children of peasant refugees, lost and forlorn, wandered aimlessly through the city with their little donkeys, dazed and adrift.

By now many citizens had become really uneasy, and some businessmen began sending their families to higher ground, deeming that safer. The little steamers that plied to Fort-de-France were thronged on every trip: in one day they carried three hundred passengers, contrasted with a normal traffic flow of eighty.

Far from reassuring was the description, appearing in Les Colonies, of a reader’s walk through the stricken countryside north of the city, in the direction of Pelée. Scuffling through the deep layer of ashes, the writer said, gave “the impression of walking delightfully through fine flour. Soil and plants and houses all alike are powdered with a grayish snow; in the countryside, desolation, aridity, and great silence prevail. In the meadows the animals are restless, bleating, neighing, and bellowing despairingly.”

The immobilized inhabitants of St. Pierre feared but did not flee. On Sunday, May 4, a woman, torn by anxiety, wrote to her brother in Marseilles:

I write under the gloomiest impressions, although I hope I exaggerate the situation. My husband laughs; but I can see that he is full of anxiety. He tells me to go. How can I go alone? The heat is suffocating. We cannot leave anything open, as the dust enters everywhere, burning our faces and eyes. All the crops are ruined.

And a second letter addressed that Sunday to a relative in France concluded fatalistically:

My calmness astonishes me. I am awaiting the event tranquilly. My only suffering is from the dust, which penetrates everywhere, even through closed doors and windows. We are all calm. Mamma is not a bit anxious. Edith alone is frightened. If death awaits us there will be a numerous company to leave the world. Will it be by fire or asphyxia? It will be what God wills. You will have our last thoughts. Tell brother Robert that we are still alive. This will, perhaps, be no longer true when this letter reaches you.

When these letters were opened, those who penned them were no more. Only “Edith,” a visitor who was not inured to living in the glare of a flaming volcano, was alive, having fled the city for a refuge at the southern end of the island, many miles away.

During the forenoon of Monday, May 5, the city plucked up courage again, for Pelée’s anger seemed to decline. But that afternoon, just before one o’clock, the sea without warning withdrew more than one hundred meters, then rushed back into the Mouillage district. Throngs fled to higher ground in panic. At the same time, a vast cloud of smoke arose west of the volcano. In a few minutes the sea receded peaceably.

A few hours later the cause of the violent flux and reflux of the sea became known: one wall of the Étang Sec crater-basin had crashed down, hurling an avalanche of boiling water and mud into the gorge of the Rivière Blanche. The seething mass raced toward the sea at express-train speed, trailing a plume of steam like a runaway locomotive, and at the mouth of the river rolled over the Guérin sugar works, the largest on the island, burying some 150 victims in mud two and three hundred feet deep.

The rush of terrorized refugees into St. Pierre from the suburbs stepped up, but so did the exodus, in a confusion of coming and going. On Monday night the atmospheric disturbances knocked out the city’s electrical system, and darkness added to the uncertainty and fear. Toward 2 A.M. Tuesday, mutterings sounded in Pelée’s depths, louder than thunder, and people ran out of their houses with lighted lamps and candles, wildly inquiring what had happened. No one could say. The hours passed anxiously; when daybreak disclosed the city undamaged, the tension eased, and the citizens reassured one another.

This spurt of confidence was given official support by a committee of experts who had been appointed by Governor Mouttet to study the situation from the standpoint of public safety. The committee reported that nothing in Pelée’s activity thus far would justify the mass evacuation of the city. “The relative positions of the craters and valleys opening toward the sea sanction the conclusion that St. Pierre’s safety is not endangered,” the experts held.

Further to emphasize the official want of concern, Governor Mouttet and his wife moved over from Fort-de-France.

But on Wednesday, May 7—St. Pierre’s last dayᰬ—there was fresh disquietude. At 4 A.M. Pelée began roaring; vivid lightning flashed continually around the summit, where two fiery craters glowed like blast furnaces. Daylight brought a dismal sight: as far as the eye could see, the western Caribbean was strewn with tangled debris swept down from the volcano’s heights by black torrents of water.

The flight from St. Pierre did not slacken under these new alarms; more and more heads of families sent their womenfolk into the environs, or even to Guadeloupe, remaining behind themselves to attend to business affairs. Yet the inflow of terrified country folk, bewildered and aimless, more than offset the departures; the population of the city actually was increased by several thousand. The editor of Les Colonies severely chided the faint-hearted who were deserting their homes for the supposed safety of earthquake-prone Fort-de-France. “Do those who are invading Fort-de-France imagine that they would be safer there than here in case of an earthquake?” he demanded.

Then he added a rhetorical question that was destined to become the epitaph of thirty thousand mortals:

“Where better off could one be than in St. Pierre?”

Where indeed? Les Colonies enlisted scientific prestige in support of its contention, and in a front-page interview with Professor Landes, of the lycée, on the nature and habits of volcanoes, quoted the professor as conceding that probably it would be safer “to leave the lower valleys and move to the heights, if one wants to be completely sure of not sharing the fate of Pompeii and Herculaneum.” But the professor pointed out that “Vesuvius has never made many victims, Pompeii was evacuated in time, and few bodies have ever been found in the buried cities.”

From this cautious ambiguity the editor drew the dangerous conclusion that “Mt. Pelée is no more to be feared by St. Pierre than Vesuvius is feared by Naples.”

This complacency was not shared by Captain Marina Leboffe, of the Italian barque Orsolina , home port Naples, loading sugar in the harbor. On Wednesday morning, Leboffe studied the mountain, and then, with only half his cargo stowed, announced that he intended to sail at once. The shippers protested indignantly, port authorities refused to give him clearance, he was threatened with arrest, but the Neapolitan skipper retorted: “I know nothing about Mt. Pelée, —but if Vesuvius were looking the way your volcano looks this morning, I’d get out of Naples!” And he sailed, leaving sixteen vessels in the roadstead.

From St. Vincent, then, came word that the Soufrière had burst into total eruption, deluging its end of the island with mud and lava. This engendered hope at St. Pierre that the internal pressure on Pelée’s crater vent would be correspondingly relieved.

By Wednesday evening, La Montagne’s paroxysms seemed to become feebler. The next day, Thursday, being the Feast of the Ascension, a holy day of obligation, all business would observe the holiday. Special masses were to be celebrated in the churches, with prayers for deliverance. The mood of indecision and hopeful fatalism was strong: where better off could one be than in St. Pierre? Governor Mouttet and his lady were in the city, evincing no alarm, and surely he should know what the chances really were.

It was hot and close all during the night of Wednesday, May 7. The air seemed unnaturally still, and Pelée emitted its lofty pennant of steam tranquilly, without fracas. But at 4 A.M.   the rumbling started again, and the volcano began shooting upward a dark ash cloud that drifted westward over the sea, pushed by the trade wind; fiery cinders streaked this vertical column of rolling, black vapor.

At 6:30 A.M. the passenger steamship Roraima dropped anchor in the harbor; her decks were gray with falling ashes, and passengers and crew lined the rail to watch the awesome spectacle of a volcano in full eruption. A short while later another passenger ship, the steamer Roddam, anchored close inshore.

Ascension Day dawned clear and sunny, and the air of the city vibrated with the ringing of church bells, the lighter voices of the parish bells mingling with the throaty resonance of the cathedral’s bourdon. On the heights around the city, suburban residents, after a wakeful night, stood viewing the mountain’s stupendous display of fireworks. Offshore, about eight miles west of the choked mouth of the Rivière Blanche, above which only the tip of the smokestack of the Guérin sugar works protruded from a solidified glacier of mud, the repair ship Pouyer-Quertier was grappling for a broken cable. In the St. Pierre post office, the night-shift telegrapher wound up transmission of the latest official reports on the volcano, mentioning no significant new developments, and the operator at Fort-de-France began his reply. The hands of the clock on the wall of St. Pierre’s military hospital pointed to 7:52 when the Fort-de-France telegrapher paused.

Allez,” clicked the operator in St. Pierre—the signal to proceed.

The operator in Fort-de-France pressed his key, but the line was dead. In that second St. Pierre died.

A few instants later, a stupendous, roaring explosion rent the air above Fort-de-France, and beyond the peaks of Carbet, which shut off St. Pierre, an enormous column of black smoke was seen to dart up and up with incredible swiftness, mushroom out, and fill the whole sky, eating up the light. The church of Fort-de-France, where the eight o’clock mass was just beginning, in a twinkling was emptied of everyone but the priests. In sudden, absolute darkness, darkness so terrible one could not discern objects twelve inches away, the people knelt in the streets and wailed incoherently. What could be happening at St. Pierre? Everybody realized that some awful catastrophe must have befallen that city.

The Pouyer-Quertier at 7:52 was sending a working message to St. Pierre, with the city in clear view. Suddenly the crew saw the upper flank of the mountain facing south appear to open, and from the gap a dense black vapor shot out like smoke from the muzzle of a cannon. Simultaneously, they saw a second black cloud—the one visible in Fort-de-France—rolling upward in gigantic whorls, mushrooming out, and quickly covering the entire sky with an umbrella of darkness fifty miles across. Both clouds traveled with unbelievable speed, their initial velocity being calculated at six to seven miles a minute.

The horizontal cloud sped down the mountain slope, tumbling over and over noiselessly toward the city. It seemed to clutch the ground, falling forward rather than floating, as though composed of some heavy, inert, violently propelled substance. Its forefront exuded puffs of smoke, “like leaping lions,” and sometimes it glowed incandescently, while lightning-like scintillations and explosions like bursting grenades flashed in its depths.

In less than one minute (witnesses’ estimates of the time varied) the cloud reached the northern verge of St. Pierre and unfolded along the city’s two-mile length like a sooty blanket, blotting out everything; whatever it touched burst into flames. On the quay, thousands of barrels of rum exploded with a roar.

The ships in the roadstead were anchored broadside to the onrushing cloud and received its full impact; most capsized and sank, their hulls afire. Only the Roraima and the Roddam remained afloat, but the masts, funnel, and boats of the Roraima were carried away, and half a dozen fires broke out on her deck. The Roddam heeled until water poured over the lee rail; then her anchor chain snapped, and she slowly righted, scorched and on fire fore and aft.

Eight miles offshore, the cable ship Pouyer-Quertier felt the heat, and red-hot stones and ashes rattled on her deck; with difficulty the fearful crew headed the vessel out to sea.

Two minutes after Pelée had vomited its destroying cloud, St. Pierre was a vast brazier of fire, obscured under an impenetrable pall of smoke and dust.

A witness who observed the cataclysm from the land side was Roger Arnoux, a trained scientist, member of the French Astronomical Society. He had left the city the evening before to spend the night at his country house on Morne Parnasse, a high hill two miles east of St. Pierre. After many restless hours, he was standing in the garden watching Pelée’s pyrotechnics when he saw two vapor clouds issue from the mountain, one vertically to a height of at least seven miles, the other laterally toward St. Pierre, lying directly in its path. To him the clouds looked violet-gray, and he noted the innumerable scintillations in their dark masses. Almost at the instant of their ejection, he was stunned by an intolerably loud crash, a grinding sound (as another witness put it, “like all the machinery in the world breaking down at once”). The time consumed in the passage of the death cloud from the volcano to the sea, a distance of roughly five miles, Arnoux computed at not more than three seconds.

The report he submitted subsequently to the Astronomical Society in Paris contained the personal comment: “I had at this time the impression that St. Pierre had been destroyed, and I wept over the loss of those whom I had left the night before.” Among these victims were his father, mother, brother, and sister. His bereavement was no greater than that suffered by thousands; families were decimated, and hardly a person on the island but was affected by the death of friends or relatives.

Immediately after the passage of the dark cloud, Arnoux reported, a gale-like wind rushed incontinently from the south, blowing toward the volcano, as though the convulsion had created a vacuum around the mountain; the wind was so violent it stripped leaves and branches from trees and flattened shrubbery. This was succeeded by a downpour of rain mixed with ashes, forming a mud paste that adhered to everything. This fetid deluge lasted half an hour. The sun had been effaced by the umbrella cloud overhead; not until an hour later did it glimmer forth feebly over a ghastly landscape.

From his presbytery in Morne Rouge, overlooking St. Pierre, Father Mary also saw the destroying cloud on its lethal path. He beheld the black vapor leap from the side of the mountain and in a few instants fall upon the city; to him, looking down on its upper surface, it appeared like a heaving, rolling plain of plowed earth—”as if all Martinique were sliding into the sea.”

The full horror of the catastrophe remained unknown to the rest of the island for several hours. The coastal ferry twice started on its regular run from Fort-de-France, and both times turned back before approaching St. Pierre. Government officials were stupefied; no word came from the governor; every attempt to communicate with the north proved futile.

The machinery of government was paralyzed. No one knew who had authority or what to do. Was the whole island about to be blasted into oblivion? There was no provision for such a catastrophe; civil authority was for the time being demoralized.

Finally, toward noon, the acting governor sent the Suchet to investigate, and the warship arrived off the burning town at about half past twelve. Examination through powerful glasses revealed no living soul. The fierce heat beat back landing parties until nearly three o’clock, when the captain came ashore on the Place Bertin, the tree-shaded square with gay cafés near the center of town. Not a tree was standing; the denuded trunks, scorched and bare, lay prone, torn out by the roots. The ground was littered with dead. In the center of the square the twisted tritons of the fountain were still spouting cool, clear water, and the members of the landing party refreshed themselves with a drink. But fire and a suffocating stench prevented any deeper exploration of the burning ruins.

Meanwhile, a number of survivors had been plucked from the sea by small boats; they were sailors who had been blown into the water by the impact of the blast, and who had clung to wreckage for hours. All were frightfully burned. In the village of Carbet, shielded from the fiery cloud by a high promontory at the southern end of the city, were more victims from the fringe of the holocaust, also horribly burned; few of these lived longer than a few hours.

Off the Mouillage, the wooden hulks of overturned vessels blazed. The Roraima ’s survivors (twenty-eight of her crew and all her passengers except a little girl and her creole nurse had been killed) were fighting fires. The Roddam had staggered away, although every man on deck when the cloud struck had been killed. Fortunately, she had had steam up, and her indomitable captain, agonizingly burned, managed to cling to the steering wheel with hands from which the flesh was peeling, and hours later brought his ship into the port of Castries, on the adjacent island of St. Lucia. Astonished port officials boarding the ash-gray, flame-seared craft found twenty-two men dead or dying.

“We come from hell,” the captain gasped.

In St. Pierre itself, only three survivors were discovered. One, a Negro about twenty-eight named Ludger Sylbaris, was a prisoner in the jail, locked in an underground dungeon without windows and ventilated only by a narrow grating in the door, which faced away from the volcano. Three days after the disaster his moaning was heard by salvage workers, who dug him out. He was frightfully burned, but gave a coherent account of his ordeal.

On the morning of May 8, he said, he was waiting for his breakfast to be brought, when suddenly it grew very dark, and hot air, mixed with fine ashes, came in through the door grating and burned him. The excruciating heat lasted only a moment, and he jumped around in agony calling for help. He heard no sound, saw no fire, smelled nothing except what he thought was his own flesh burning, and his clothing did not ignite, although his body underneath was seared so deeply that blood oozed from the wounds. During the time of intolerable heat he breathed as little as possible, he said, and when he took a drink from the cruche in the cell, the water was not hot. Sent to Morne Rouge, Sylbaris received all the care Father Mary could procure, and there recounted his experience to impartial investigators. Curiously, although his back, legs, arms, and hands were appallingly burned, his face was not touched nor his hair singed. The capricious behavior of the blast was observed in other curious manifestations.

A second survivor—at least, a man who escaped the inferno alive—was Léon Compère-Léandre, also a Negro, aged twenty-eight. He remembered that while he was sitting on the doorstep of his house on the eastern edge of the city, he suddenly felt “a terrible wind blowing. The ground began to shake, and the sky all at once became dark. I turned to go into the house, with great difficulty made the three or four steps that separated me from my room, and felt my arms and legs burning, also my body. I dropped on a table.” Perhaps an hour later he regained consciousness and saw the roof burning. In spite of his wounds, he walked or ran as far as Fond-St. Dénis, a suburb east of the city, where he found succor; but he died shortly thereafter.

The third Pierrotin who lived through the death cloud was a woman, a housemaid, who was scarcely breathing when taken from the ruins. She recalled nothing beyond feeling a sudden heat as she sat in the kitchen, and she fainted. Death ended her agony almost immediately after she was discovered.

These were the survivors. Thirty thousand perished.

The area of devastation covered about eight square miles, but the volcano focused its fury on St. Pierre, as if that had been the predetermined target. Inside this area, the annihilation of life and property was total; outside was a second, clearly defined zone where life was snuffed out, but the material damage was less; while beyond this lay a strip in which vegetation was scorched but life was spared. These zones were clearly distinguishable, and in some instances persons on one side of the dividing line were killed, while others, a short distance away, were untouched.

There were many freakish effects. Fragile or combustible objects often were not injured, although solid objects nearby were consumed or utterly fragmented. A cambric handkerchief in the hand of a woman from whose body the clothing had been ripped—scribbled notepaper—water in carafes still sweet and not evaporated—wine glasses with stems bent out of shape but their petal-thin bowls intact—a bundle of clay pipes lying unbroken on a store counter.

As for the cause, researchers generally came to the conclusion that it was superheated steam, possibly as hot as 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, mixed with lethal gases and explosive, incandescent dust. Many victims were in casual attitudes, their features calm and reposeful, indicating that death had overtaken them without warning and without pain; others were contorted in anguish. The clothing had been torn from nearly all the victims struck down out-of-doors, as would happen in the passage of a cyclone; the crumbling of walls three and four feet thick also was attributed to the velocity of the death cloud, moving faster than a hurricane. Some houses were almost pulverized; it was impossible even for persons familiar with the city to identify the foundations of many landmarks. One grim souvenir of the city’s doomsday was the clock on the shattered front wall of the military hospital, its hands frozen at 7:52.

The city burned for days. Sanitation parties penetrated the calcined ruins bit by bit, to dispose of the dead by burning; burial was out of the question. The stench was sickening. Thousands of victims lay under a shroud of ashes, heaped in windrows several feet deep, caked by the rains; many of these bodies were not retrieved for weeks, and few were identifiable.

The structural obliteration of St. Pierre was completed on May 20, when a second eruption, tallying almost exactly with the murderous visitation of May 8 and equaling that blast in sheer force, leveled whatever buildings were still standing. The wall of the military hospital with its telltale clockface went down into the rubble then. Thereafter Pelée continued to erupt spasmodically.

On August 30 Pelée again sent out its death cloud, and Morne Rouge and several adjacent hamlets were destroyed, with a loss of 1,500 to 2,000 lives. Among the victims was the heroic priest of Notre Dame de La Délivrande, Father Mary, who had remained at his post in spite of the danger. In his presbytery when the cloud descended, he endeavored to gain the protection of the stone church, a few paces away, but was struck down. He succeeded in crawling to a bench inside the church door, and there was found by rescuers; but he died two days later.

During these later outbursts, the relief dispatched so promptly by the world’s generosity sufficed to ease the lot of the frightened islanders, and talk of evacuating the island died down. The refugees moved back to their homes and garden plots, were driven out by fresh eruptions, and moved back again. For months, while the volcano gradually quieted, reporters and scientists supplied newspapers and magazines with spectacular descriptions of the calamity and debated its probable cause. In the United States, interest waned; the West Indies held little attraction for that Yankee generation. And to a people bred amid the greater violence of two world wars, St. Pierre became a vague memory and at length was all but forgotten.

There was no resurrection. Dead cities are rebuilt by their survivors, and St. Pierre had none. Life and death crowd each other inexorably in the tropics, and luxuriant vegetation swiftly covered the hideous scars. Up Pelée’s slopes the forests crept again; the streams ran clear. Although recurrently, during the twenties and thirties, the volcano spewed out its black cloud, it took no lives. Cane fields again rippled around its base, and along the waterfront where men once sang as they toiled, fishermen built huts in the angles of old basements. But neither these simple homes, nor the occupants of the village that eventually collected, bore any relationship or resemblance to the vanished city. A way of life, charming, unique, and irreplaceable, was gone forever, violently expunged from the earth; its fate symbolized by a white ossuary standing starkly upon the green hillside, enshrining innumerable bones.

“You could never forget those events”


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