(Fig. 2.27) This is the mainstreet of St Pierre that was totally devastated after the eruption of Mount Pelée.
Credit: Library of Congress
The residents of St Pierre living in Martinique, a French island in the Caribean Sea, had lived for over 2 centuries in the shade of "their" volcano. By 1902 they even had become familiar with the volcano, as if it was a dragon that was sleeping in peace in their back-yard.
The strato volcano, called Mount Pelée, was approximately 1400 metres high, cone-shaped and took up a surface of 100m2 on the north part of Martinique.
Nothing in the history of the volcano pointed to the fact that all of the 30.000 "Pierrotins", as the residents of St Pierre were called, except 2
could be killed. Also, nobody expected that this normal looking "mountain" would become a milestone in the young science of volcanology.
The time on which the volcano erupted was determined very accurately; it was in the morning on the 8th of May 1902, 8 to 8 (the time could be ascertained so exact because they found a clock in the military hospital which stopped at the time of the eruption).
The eruption didn't come very unexpected because there were foregoing "warnings" of the volcano: on the second of April steam came out of the Pelée, on the 23th April light earthshocks were noticed and a thin rain of ash fell on the city. On the 25th April ash and pumice were spit out by the volcano.
The authorities weren't anxious about these happenings so they didn't warn the residents. But during the last days of April and the first days of May the Mount Pelée didn't stop vomitting ash and the gas-scent grew stronger and stronger.
Then, on the 7th of May, the residents of St Pierre were startled by an enormous roaring. Near the top of the Pelée were two craters that were glowing like smelting-furnaces and above the volcano hung a big cloud which was emitting flashes of lightning.
The next day, on 10 to 8 in the morning, the Mount Pelée finally erupted. Two enormous black clouds of volcanic material (nuées ardentes) were thrown out, one nuée went straight up and the other one followed the slope of the volcano coming towards St Pierre. This rolling, glowing and incredible hot avalanche destroyed nearly the whole village in a few minutes. Two out of 30000 people survived the disaster! After the disastrous eruption the volcano erupted again a few times, but this wasn't very bad because there wasn't anything left to destroy!
The volcanologist Alfred Lacroix spent, after the disaster of the Mount Pelée in 1902, a year on Martinique doing research on the volcano.
He discovered the uncommon phenomenon of a "nuée ardente" (the disastrous black volcanic cloud which was emitted by the eruption of the Mount Pelée) can be caused
by a sideward eruption of volcanic material.
The Mount Pelée went gradual dormant again. But in Octobre 1902 geologists discovered that from the cone in the crater of L'Étang Sec (the name of the
second crater of the volcano) a gigantic pillar of stolled lava arose which was pushed up by the pressure in the volcano. This lava dome, called the tower of Pelée was 100 to 150 metres wide and displayed many colors. On his peak the dome was approximately 300 metres above the edge of the crater! The tower was unfortunately not stable enough and by september 1903 only
a big mess was left.
However, when the tower of Pelée was still up it was, in the words of Angelo Heilprin, "a memorial of nature for the 30,000 dead who are lieing buried in the city".