For over two hundred years, the people of the port city of St. Pierre, on the French Caribbean island of Martinique, lived at the base of a massive, but dormant, volcano. There were minor disturbances in 1792 and 1851, when it shot up gray ash, which didn't even inconvenience the citizens. They had no idea of the disaster that laid ahead for them....
Mount Pelee itself had a somewhat conical shape, and a height of 4,500 feet high. Its base was 39 square miles, and the summit was curved like a bowl with a lake in the basin (called Lac des Palmistes). Below the summit was a second crater, which was surrounded by tall cliffs on three sides. On the fourth side was a V-shaped notch, and four miles below this lay the city of St. Pierre.
As sudden as the eruption seemed, there was several signs long before this catastrophe. In the month of February, some Pierrotins (citizens of St. Pierre) reported smelling sulfurous gas. However, it passed away quickly. April 2nd, puffs of steam were seen coming out of vents (called fumaroles) high on Pelee, and on the 23rd a small amount of ash fell on the city, followed by mild tremors. On April 25th, the second crater near the summit opened up, spewing ash and rock fragments. All through the latter part of the month of April, the mountain continued to spew clouds of ash, and the sulfurous gas fumes became more frequent. Still, the citizens thought these disturbances would soon past. By May the grayish powder was now several inches deep in the areas closest to the volcano. On May 2nd, late at night, Pelee gave out a series of explosions.
On May 3rd, the newspaper of St. Pierre (Les Colonies) complained about the occurrences of the volcano. "The rain of ashes never ceases. At about half-past nine the sun shone forth timidly. The passing of carriages is no longer heard in the streets. The wheels are muffled. Puffs of wind sweep the ashes from the roofs and awnings, and blow them into rooms whose windows have been imprudently left open."
By now, the cathedral was crowded all day with people waiting to make their confessions to the priest. Even though thousands of people left the city, about 30,000 still remained. Amazingly, feeling something was not right, animals became restless, and massive groups of insects and snakes fled from the mountain.
May 6th, the eruptions were becoming worse, as they could be clearly be heard 100 miles away on the island of Guadeloupe. Steam now covered the summit of Pelee, and ash fell down slowly, covering everything with up to a foot of ash, which killed crops and withered trees. About 5 p.m., telegraphic communication was broken between Martinique and the islands of St. Vincent and St. Lucia (this was due to undersea avalanches had snapped the cables).
On May 7th, Pelee awoke the residents of St. Pierre at 4 a.m. with a deafening roar. The inhabitants, Pierrotins, observed two fiery craters glowing like furnaces near the summit. Above the people, was a cloud filled with lightening.
When daylight came, it appeared the entire Caribbean was littered with chunks of ash, pumice and vegetation swept into the sea by the flooding rivers. Some say it appeared that the ships were sailing on soggy ground.
None of the captains of these ships seemed to alarmed by the volcano's behavior, except one. This man was Captain Marino Leboffe of the Italian ship, Orsolina. His home port was Naples, where Mount Vesuvius marks the skyline. As he was leaving Martinique, he said "I know nothing about Mount Pelee, but if Vesuvius were looking the way your volcano looks this morning, I'd get out of Naples." His ship was far away when Pelee exploded the next day...
Mount Pelee blew up on May 8, about 7:50 a.m. It started with three or four violent explosions in quick succession, then two enormous black clouds of volcanic material shot out from the mountain. One of these went straight up into the sky, where expanded across the whole sky. It blotted out light so completely that people in Fort-de-France, twelve miles away, could not see two feet in front of them. The other cloud didn't rise like the first, but ran down the slopes, its path directed by the V-shaped notch at the summit. It was on a crash course for St. Pierre.
This cloud moved at a speed approximately 100 miles per hour, in about two minutes it impacted the city with an incredible force. The greatest buildings were quickly blown down and scattered into rubble. The incandescent cloud (known to volcanologists as nuées ardente, which is "glowing cloud" or "glowing avalanche") set the wreckage of St. Pierre on fire as it swept over it. The timbers turned into huge infernos, and in the warehouses thousands of barrels of rum exploded. This flaming liquid ran through the streets and out into the water of the roadstead. (The city was destroyed at 7:52 a.m. That time can established, due to the fact that the hands on the clock on the wall of the hospital were frozen on that time.)
On that morning, before the eruption, 30,000 souls inhabited the city of St. Pierre. Afterwards, only two survived, and those were nothing short of a miracle.
One was a shoemaker, named Leon Compere-Leandre, who mostly owes his life to the fact his house was located near the edge of the path of the cloud. His encounter of the eruption:
"I felt a terrible wind blowing, the earth began to tremble, and the sky suddenly became dark. I turned to go into the house, with great difficulty climbed the three or four steps that separated me from my room, and felt my arms and legs burning, also my body.
"I dropped upon a table. At this moment four others sought refuge in my room, crying and writhing with pain, although their garments showed no sign of having been touched by flame. At the end of 10 minutes one of these, the young Delavaud girl, aged about 10 years, fell dead; the others left. I got up and went into another room, where I found the father Delavaud, still clothed and lying on the bed, dead. He was purple and inflated, but the clothing was intact. Crazed and almost overcome, I threw myself on a bed, inert and awaiting death. My senses returned to me in perhaps an hour, when I beheld the roof burning. With sufficient strength left, my legs bleeding and covered with burns, I ran to Fonds-Saint-Denis, six kilometers away from St. Pierre."
The other survivor was a convicted felon, who was serving time in a St. Pierre dungeon, at the time. His name was Auguste Ciparis, who became a minor celebrity. His cell only had a little grated aperture in the wall above the door, taking the place of a window. However, Ciparis was still severely burned, and was put into the state of critical condition. An American journalist interviewed him, still in critical condition, not long after the accident. The reporter said "he had been more frightfully burned, I think, than any man I had ever seen."
Ciparis reported that on that fateful morning he was waiting for his breakfast, when his cell became very dark. Then, almost immediately, gusts of hot air and ash came through his door grating and seared him. For a few moments, there was intense heat, during which Ciparis held his breath. Though his clothing remained unburned, his back was severely burnt. He reached for a container of water, which was amazingly still cool enough to drink.
Ciparis was trapped in his cell, buried underground, for about four days. He was finally rescued when a group of men were exploring the remains of the destroyed city, and heard his shouts.
He eventually recovered, and somehow received a pardon. Interestingly enough, he joined Barnum and Bailey Circus, and became known as "The Prisoner of St. Pierre". He toured telling his amazing story, and showing his scars as evidence. The advertisements read "The only living object that survived the 'Silent City of Death' where 40,000 human beings were suffocated, burned, or buried alive by one belching blast of Mont Pelee's terrible volcanic eruption".
Only two people in the city of St. Pierre survived, however, there were other survivors, on ships in the bay. There were 18 vessels there that morning. After the eruption, the burning cloud swept across the water, which capsized and ignited sixteen of them.
The captain of the Canadian steamship Roraima, Chief Officer Ellery Scott, later told about his experience. Roraima held 47 crew members and 21 passengers, some of them children; and the ship was 1,200 feet offshore. Scott saw the cloud swallow up the city of St. Pierre, then rush toward the sea. Scott says: "Then came darkness blacker than night. The Roraima rolled and careened far to port, then with a sudden jerk she went to starboard, plunging her lee rail far under water. The masts, smokestack, rigging, all were swept clean off and went by the board. The iron smokestack came off short, and the two steel masts broke off two feet above the deck. The ship took fire in several places simultaneously, and men, women, and children were dead in a few seconds."
After the initial blast, it started to rain a mixture of ash and water, which was observed by Scott, who was huddling under tarpaulin cover, uninjured. He described the rain having "the consistency of very thin cement. Wherever it fell it formed a coating clinging like glue, so that it coated those who wore no caps, making a complete cement mask right over their heads. The assistant purser 's head was so weighted down with the material that he seemed to feel giddy. When he asked me to break the casing off his head I was afraid it would scalp him when I took it off. I could feel the heat on my own head very plainly through my tarpaulin covering, and his scalp must have been badly scorched."
Scott finally found the captain, who was so badly scorched that he couldn't be identified, and had to state to Scott who he was. The captain said, "Find out how the ship is and what is the condition of our people." Scott followed the captain's orders, "finding the after end of the ship all on fire and people burned and dying everywhere, and flames breaking out in several places forward." But, he could not find the captain to report his findings to. "He had either fallen or jumped overboard to relieve his own sufferings, which must have been very terrible."
Scott organized a team of four able-bodied crewmen to stop the spreading flames with water buckets, because the ship's pumps were not working. Other members of the crew had lost the flesh from their hands, yet they still tried to carry buckets in between their elbows. The fires were abated, "gradually we collected the survivors and laid them on the deck forward, all of them crying for water, but many of the unfortunates could not drink at all." The interior of their throats and mouths were too burnt. "When we put the water into their mouths it stayed there and almost choked them, and we had to turn them over to get the water out." Scott gave the people, who were unable to drink water, bits of ice from the icehouse to on.
Hours later, Suchet, a French cruiser sent from Fort-de-France, took off the survivors from the Roraima, some who later perished in the hospitals they were sent to. About 20 of the 68 crew members and passengers survived the horrible ordeal, and other ships in the bay the casualty rate was even higher. During the aftermath, other witnesses came forward with their stories.
Fernand Clerc (one of the island's most famous planters), on that morning, was at his St. Pierre home with his wife, four children, and several friends. He arose early, and was eating breakfast, when suddenly he noticed the barometer acting strange. It's pointer was swinging quite wildly, "with a tendency toward fluttering." A immediately sensed something was wrong, and ordered that his carriages be made ready to flee, however, only his family went with him. "My friends said I was over-timid and refused to leave." The Clerc family started down the street, they met the American consul, Thomas Prentiss, and his wife standing on the consulate balcony. "They waved to me and I returned the salute, calling to them at the same time that they had better accompany me," Clerc said. Prentiss refused, so Clerc continued, and 45 minutes later him and his family arrived at their country house that was located three miles above the city. Just then, Pelee erupted as they looked down at the city. Clerc later told reporters what he witnessed....
"The cloud that had for so many days surmounted Pelee seemed to topple over with a loud noise and tumble into the city. Behind the smoke came a sheet of flame. The cloud rolled down the mountain like a great torrent of black fog, accompanied by a continuous roar of half-blended staccato beats of varying intensity, something like the throbbing, pulsating roar of a Gatling-gun battery going into action."
The thick, black clouds blocked out the sun, and hot ash began to rain on the hillside. After ten minutes, the only light came from the burning city below. All around the family was a suffocating, hot darkness, until a strong wind began to blow it away, twenty minutes later. Clerc saw his sister's plantation destroyed, so he began to make his way toward the town. Clerc describes his horrible experience: "Tongue or pen can never describe what I saw. About me everywhere were my relatives and friends burning. I saw I could do no good...all were dead...not one alive. I hastened back and at the first opportunity sent my family to Guadeloupe."
One of the most incredible and most amazing stories, was that of a little girl, Harviva Da Ifrile. Harviva (age unknown) was on her way to church services at the St. Pierre cathedral, when her mother sent her to her aunt's pastry shop halfway up the mountain, to run an errand. The shop was located near near a crater called "Corkscrew", named after the tourist path that wound down inside the pit.
As Harviva walked up the mountain, she noticed smoke coming from the crater. She noticed a hot wind blowing as she ran to the Corkscrew, then she looked down the chasm: "There I saw the bottom of the pit all red, like boiling, with little blue flames coming from it." She witnessed three people running up the trail, two guides and a woman. "Then I saw a puff of blue smoke seem to hit the party and they fell as if killed."
Harviva watched in horror as the red liquid rose up and covered the bodies lying on the path. The little girl then ran as fast as she could, screaming, down the slope to St. Pierre.
"Just as I got to the main street I saw this boiling stuff burst from the top of the Corkscrew and run down the side of the hill. It followed the road first, but then as the stream got bigger, it ate up the houses on both sides of the road. Then I saw that a boiling red river was coming from another part of the hill and cutting off the escape of the people who were running from the houses."
Little Harviva ran to the coast, where her brother's boat was located, which was already fixed with a sail. She jumped into the boat, then saw her brother run toward her. "But he was too late, and I heard him scream as the stream first touched then swallowed him." Terrified, Harviva somehow got the small vessel into that water, away from the speeding cloud of hot gases and burning ashes. She sailed for a crevice along the coast where she used to play with her friends. "But before I got there I looked back, and the whole side of the mountain which was near the town seemed to open and boil down on the screaming people. I was burned a good deal by the stones and ashes that came flying about the boat, but I got to the cave." Inside the cavern, she heard "an awful hiss as the boiling stuff struck the sea, and the cave filled up almost to the top with water." Harviva then became unconscious. She remembers nothing else, except that she was found by the French cruiser Suchet, floating two miles away in the sea, in her charred boat.
However, on May 20th, at 5 p.m., Pelee brought forth a second gigantic explosion, with the nuées ardentes surpassing the first eruption. No one was killed (because there was no one left to die), but it buried what remained of the city in deeper ash.
American scientists Edmund Hovey and Thomas Jaggar Jr. arrived at Martinique on May 21st. When they reached St. Pierre, the could not believe the results of the force that the black cloud had.
Buildings were leveled, girders were twisted, roof sheeting wrapped around posts, and a statue of the Mary was hurled 40 feet from its pedestal.
Suprisingly enough, there was no lava flow during the eruption; there was no evidence. All this destruction was caused by of cloud of gases, superheated steam, and incandescent ash. Scientists concluded that the temperature of the cloud was between 1,300° and 1,800° F., hot enough to soften glass (1,292 °F.), yet not hot enough to melt copper (1,981° F.)
The death of the citizens was caused by the a combination of the blast and heat. Many of the corpses were torn apart, while others were horribly burned.
However, the nuées ardente's effects were inconsistent, as some people were left with clothing intact. Scientists believe that turbulence in the cloud caused areas that were momentarily free of incandescent ashes, yet intense heat was still present.
Scientists also believe that the sulfur gases at a high temperature, and containing a large amount of dust, would have been almost instant fatality as the cloud passed over the city.
Scientists, however, can not agree on why it was a lateral blast of gases and volcanic material, with no lava. So, now this phenomenon was known as a Pelean eruption.
Throughout the fall of 1902, and almost a year afterward, there were many small eruptions at Pelee. There were no further deaths, and Pelee sank back into its peaceful sleep.............