Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Eruption of Mount Pelee, Martinique


Although in January 1902 Mt. Pelée began to show an abrupt increase in fumarole activity, the public showed little concern. This changed, however, on April 23 when minor explosions began at the summit of the volcano. Over the next few days, St. Pierre was rocked by earth tremors, showered in ash, and enveloped in a thick cloud of choking sulfurous gas. These nightmarish conditions deteriorated further when the city and outlying villages were invaded by ground-dwelling insects and snakes driven from the slopes of Mt. Pelée by the ashfalls and tremors. Horses, pigs, and dogs screamed as red ants and foot-long centipedes crawled up their legs and bit them. Thousands of poisonous snakes joined the fray. An estimated 50 humans, mostly children, died by the snake bites, along with some 200 animals.


As the summit eruptions intensified, water in the Etang Sec crater lake was heated to near boiling. On May 5, the crater rim gave way, sending a torrent of scalding water cascading down the River Blanche. The hot water mixed with loose pyroclastic debris to generate a massive lahar with a downslope speed of nearly 100 kilometers per hour. This large volcanic mudflow buried everything in its path. Near the mouth of the river, north of St. Pierre, it overran a rum distillery, killing 23 workmen. The lahar continued into the sea, where it generated a three-meter-high tsunami which flooded the low-lying areas along the waterfront of St. Pierre.


Living near the volcano became increasingly stressful, leading many to consider leaving St. Pierre for Martinique's second city, Fort-de-France. On the day of the lahar, however, Governor Louis Mouttet received a report from a committee of civic leaders who climbed the volcano to assess the danger. The only scientist in the group was a local high school teacher. The report stated that "there is nothing in the activity of Mt. Pelée that warrants a departure from St. Pierre." It concluded that "the safety of St. Pierre is completely assured." The report eased the public's fears, and gave hope to city officials who were particularly anxious that voters remain in the city to cast their ballots for an election that was to be held on May 11.


The only people with enough money to leave the island were the wealthy, nearly all of which belonged to the Progressive Party of Governor Mouttet. Mouttet convinced the conservative editor of the daily newspaper Les Colonies to downplay the danger of the volcano, and to lead the effort to encourage people to remain. Still, some residents left the city for Fort-de-France. This prompted Governor Mouttet to send in troops to patrol the road to Fort-de-France, with orders to turn back refugees who were trying to leave. Based on the soothing articles that appeared in Les Colonies, many people in the countryside flocked to St. Pierre thinking that it was the safest place to be. The population ballooned to about 28,000, nearly all of which would perish in the cataclysmic eruption of May 8.

 Mt. Pelee volcano, St. Pierre, Martinique

Description: Photograph from album that includes views of Martinique and destruction, dead, and rubble from the eruption of the Mt. Pelee volcano, May 1902. The album comprises 61 photographic prints. It was published by W. G. Cooper, who operated a photography studio in Bridgetown, Barbados.

Postcard of Survivor of the Mount Pelee Eruption

The sole survivor of the eruption of Mount Pelee on Martinique. He was locked in a strong underground jail cell in the town of Saint-Pierre, when the volcanic eruption killed everyone else in a matter of seconds. An estimated 30,000 people died.

The only other known survivor in St. Pierre became a minor celebrity. He was a husky 25-year-old roustabout named Louis-Auguste Cyparis, locally known simply as "Samson". In early April, Samson was put in jail for wounding one of his friends with a cutlass. Towards the end of his sentence, he escaped from a labouring job in town, danced all night, and then turned himself into the authorities the following morning. For this, he was sentenced to solitary confinement for a week in the prison's dungeon. On May 8, he was alone in his dungeon with only a small grated opening cut into the wall above the door. While waiting for his breakfast, his cell became dark and he was overcome by intense gusts of hot air mixed with ash that had entered through the grated opening. He held his breathe while experiencing intense pain. After a few moments, the heat subsided. He was severally burned, but managed to survive for four days before he was rescued by people exploring the ruins of St. Pierre. After he recovered, he received a pardon and eventually joined the Barnum & Bailey Circus, where he toured the world billed as the "Lone Survivor of St. Pierre."

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