At the turn of the 20th century, the town of St. Pierre was known as the “Paris of the Caribbean.” Nestled into the northwest coast of the French island of Martinique, it boasted a bustling harbor where ships hauled away precious loads of sugar and rum, and it had usurped the official capital — Fort-de-France — as the colony’s cultural center.
But St. Pierre had a problem: it lay in the shadow of a massive volcano.
Mount Pelée, sat just 7 kilometers from St. Pierre and soared almost 1,400 meters above the city. Its smooth, verdant slopes lumbered down to the sea, cut in places by deep, raw gashes. Its summit crater drew adventurous hikers who occasionally caught whiffs of putrid gases. But, as far as the residents of St. Pierre knew, Mount Pelée was a gentle giant. The volcano had creaked and grunted back in 1792, and had showered the northern lobe of Martinique with fine ash once in 1851. But after a few more coughs and some minor mudslides, Pelée fell quiet for half a century.
When it roared to life again in 1902, the mountain produced one of the deadliest eruptions in recorded history, unleashing a cascade of horrors upon the residents of St. Pierre before obliterating the town in one fatal instant.
In April 1902, the first signs of Pelée’s reawakening were subtle: a string of small tremors rattled St. Pierre, and clouds of sulfurous fumes wafted down from the mountain. Other signs were just plain mysterious, like the rupture of an underwater telegraph cable connecting Martinique to nearby Dominica, or the sudden appearance of a lake in the caldera.
On the night of May 2, however, a small eruption commanded the town’s attention. Witnesses said Pelée’s summit seemed to catch fire, spewing glowing rocks and rendering the midnight sky incandescent. The next morning, residents found birds that had plummeted from the air, weighted down by ash, and a steamer captain noticed dead fish floating in the sea, possibly killed by the shockwave of a submarine earthquake.
Over the following days, the mountain continued to fume, driving terrified people from the countryside into St. Pierre, which the newspapers reported was safe (a fatal mistake.) Even there, however, things were amiss: The Rivière Blanche on Pelée’s southwest flank, which emptied into the sea just north of town, had been fluctuating wildly, sometimes overtopping its banks, other times disappearing completely. No one suspected that these convulsions stemmed from magma rising from the bowels of the volcano and affecting groundwater. Yet, these unsettling omens did not go completely unnoticed by the town’s residents.
“This morning the whole population of the city is on the alert, and every eye is directed toward Mount Pelée, an extinct volcano,” wrote Clara Prentiss, the wife of the American consul in St. Pierre, in a letter to her sister. “Everybody is afraid that the volcano has taken into its head to burst forth and destroy the whole island.”
In fact, on May 5, events took a deadly turn when a massive lahar broke through the crater wall and came screaming down the Rivière Blanche at speeds topping 100 kilometers per hour. A devastating mixture of mud and hot water, the slide destroyed a sugar processing plant on the coast, killing almost two dozen people. The debris then spilled into the ocean, producing a 3-meter-high tsunami that inundated St. Pierre.
Perhaps most horrifying of all, though, was the plague of insects and snakes that slithered down from the mountain, disturbed by its paroxysms. Among the invaders were gigantic centipedes and deadly 2-meter long pit vipers, which claimed the lives of hundreds of livestock and about 50 people, according to some accounts. Soldiers shot the serpents in the streets in what would turn out to be a futile effort to protect the people of St. Pierre.
Pelée’s eruption continued to intensify. On May 6, blue flames heralded the arrival of magma in the crater as a lava dome poked above its rim. On May 7, the mountain sputtered and a volcano on neighboring St. Vincent exploded, killing 1,500 people. The authorities, however, insisted there was nothing to fear. The very same day, members of a commission appointed by the island’s governor — whose leading expert was a high school science teacher — told the local paper that Mount Pelée presented no danger.
There’s debate about exactly what happened on May 8 — Ascension Day — but one thing is certain: In the course of a few short minutes, an infernal blast of hot gas and volcanic debris obliterated St. Pierre. Moments later, all but a handful of its nearly 30,000 residents were dead, including the governor, who had come with his family to reassure the population. Most of the victims perished from suffocation and burns that scorched their skin and lungs. (Subsequent analyses based on burnt wood yielded temperature estimates suggesting the gas cloud was between 350 and 400 degrees Celsius.)
Pelée sent a cloud of superheated gas and dust racing toward the city. Within a single minute the 1,075 degree pressure wave had flattened nearly every building in the city of St. Pierre. Anyone unlucky enough to be in its way instantly caught fire and burned to death. Even those in shelters were suffocated as the wave of super heated gas burned up the oxygen and replaced it with deadly gases. People's lungs were incinerated from the inside when they took even a single breath. Nearly all 30,000 residents of the island were killed instantly, and the city burned for days afterward.
One witness, Victor Albert, watched the explosion from his field and described the ensuing events to the French newspaper La Croix: “A flash more dazzling than a lightning happened … At the same time, a cloud that formed on the summit of Montagne [Mount] Pelée literally fell on Saint-Pierre with such rapidity that it was impossible for anyone to escape.”
The explosion leveled the town, hurling massive stone statues several meters from their perches — implying the cloud reached speeds exceeding 100 meters per second — and sparing only some walls oriented parallel to the blast. For days afterward, St. Pierre burned. Ships in the harbor smoldered and sank.
When rescuers eventually did enter the ruins, they pulled from a jail cell the most famous survivor of the disaster, Louis-Auguste Cyparis. On May 7, 1902, the town troublemaker, Cyparis, ended up in solitary confinement after being arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct.
The next day, apocalypse came to Martinique.
Trapped in his cell, Sylbaris felt the intense heat from the 1,000-degree pressure wave as ash came flying in through the tiny slot in the door. Suffering from burns and desperate to cool down, Sylbaris urinated on his clothes and stuffed them into the slot. It was just enough to save him. Four days later, rescuers freed him from his prison. Since all records were destroyed and all witnesses killed by the eruption what Ludger was being imprisoned for is a matter of speculation. Ludger later told everyone it was because of a fight, but the cell he was in would have been where someone accused of a more serious crime such as murder might have been held. While the eruption was doomsday for the town of St Pierre, it may have been Ludger Sylbaris' savior. Having survived the worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century, Sylbaris became a celebrity, even touring the world with Barnum & Bailey’s circus. Posters billed him as "the only living object that survived in the 'Silent City of Death.'"
The catastrophe led geologists to invent a term for the blast that destroyed the city. Alfred Lacroix, a member of the French Geological Survey who wrote the most comprehensive account of the disaster in 1904, dubbed the phenomenon a “nuée ardente,” meaning glowing or burning cloud. In modern parlance, geologists would categorize this deadly mix of hot gas and rock as a type of pyroclastic flow, examples of which have since been observed during other volcanic eruptions, including Mount St. Helens in 1980.
The 1902 eruption stands out for its sheer ferocity and the magnitude of the tragedy it produced. It ranks as the deadliest volcanic disaster of the 20th century, and the third deadliest in recorded history, after the 1815 eruption of Tambora and the 1883 explosion of Krakatoa. However, Tanguy argues that Pelée’s eruption killed more people directly than either of these two volcanoes, whose devastation took many additional forms, including starvation, disease and tsunamis.
Once the cultural capital of Martinique, the devastation of the eruption left its mark and today the town is now home to fewer than 5,000 people.
History is replete with example after example of sudden, catastrophic destruction. All are an ominous foreshadow of the most fearsome destruction yet to come at the end of the age.
(Coming in Part 4 - "He looked around and there was NOTHING in any direction")