The Day the Earth Died

The Day the Earth Died

Nuee ardente, the fiery cloud, a most terrifying phenomenon of volcanism, is a mass of superheated gases (about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit), incandescent ash, and other volcanic clastic debris,. It shoots down the side of the volcano at hurricane speeds, clinging to the ground, instantly baking anything organic. Inhaling it is like breathing fire. It can sterilize a landscape almost as effectively as an atomic bomb. For one who might survive being roasted alive, the gases in the cloud guarantee death by asphyxiation.

When the fiery cloud came shooting down the side of Mount Pelee and enveloped the city of Saint Pierre and its inhabitants, it seemed as if the earth had died.

Basking in the warm tropical sun lay the small Caribbean island of Martinique, a prized French possession. Roughly forty miles long and sixteen miles wide, it was mantled with junglelike forests. The highest peak of the island was a volcano named Mount Pelee. It had last erupted in 1851, sprinkling the countryside with rich volcanic ash and making the soil fertile for sugar, coffee, and tobacco plantations.

The island boasted the beautiful port of Saint Pierre, a flourishing city and the most important commercial center in the Lesser Antilles. It was often referred to as "The Paris of the West Indies." The city housed a population of about 30,000 people who took much pride in their hometown. The charming appearance of crooked narrow streets bordered with low tile—roofed houses, all set in a background of tropical vegetation, presented the impression of an alluring travel poster. One main street ran the entire length of the city and was crossed by a number of small streets. The local newspaper Les Colonies reported the local news to a purpose. In the storage houses of the city was an ocean of rum in barrels and bottles waiting to be exported. And over all this bustle of healthy activity loomed a sleeping volcano.

Mount Pelee, located about six miles northeast of Saint Pierre, was not particularly impressive in the ranks of the world's volcanoes, being only 4,430 feet high. The mountain was a resort to the residents of the city. Its ravines and forested slopes provided enjoyable vacation and recreational interludes, as did its crater lake. A short, pleasant climb through a gap in the caldera led to the lake. Neither residents nor tourists were alarmed about spending their leisure time in the cavity of a volcano.

In the spring of 1901 a group of picnickers, upon arriving at the summit, found a small jet of steam rising from the margin of the crater lake. It smelled of sulfur and had killed nearby vegetation. Nothing more was observed until almost a year later, when, on April 2, 1902, the nightmare began.

On that date a local scientist from Saint—Pierre Lycee, Professor Landes, noticed new fumaroles appearing in the upper valley of a river that ran down from the summit of the volcano, and on April 25 Mount Pelee really awakened from its deep sleep. The people of Saint Pierre were enthralled by the display put on by the volcano as it threw vast clouds of steam charged with ash and rock fragments straight upward from its summit amid thunderous roars.

Ash began to fall regularly on the city, and in a very few days Saint Pierre began to take on the appearance of a winter scene in a New England city. Mild, perceptible earthquakes were common, and people sat down to dinner amid rattling dishes. Air became difficult to breathe as ash continued to fall. Very few people dared to venture forth from the security of their homes. Saint Pierre was becoming a silent city as ash deadened the sounds of footsteps and the rolling wheels of carriages. The first casualties were two horses pulling a large wagon; weak from breathing sulfurous fumes and ash, they fell almost simultaneously in the street, dead of asphyxiation. The eruptions became more frequent and violent, and sleep was uneasy; people were awakened by explosions that shot thick, dark clouds into the atmosphere, dramatically laced with brilliant crisscrossed lightning. Still the residents did not evacuate the city.

Early in the afternoon of May 5 a torrent of boiling mud surged downward from the summit at express—train speed, overwhelming a sugar mill and burying at least forty men alive. The smokestacks protruding above the mud became their monument. Mount Pelee had claimed its first human victims. This was the straw that broke the back of the people, and citizens began to panic and pack their possessions. Many did leave for the safety of the capital city of Fort—de—France and other points to the south of the island. These refugees were to be the survivors of the forthcoming disaster. Many people who lived in out—lying areas fled into Saint Pierre for refuge, a fatal mistake.

An important election was scheduled for May 10, and it was imperative to the island politicians that the people remain in Saint Pierre so they could vote. So the government officials took steps to stop the exodus from the doomed city. An official commission appointed by the island governor reported that there was no immediate danger and that the people were perfectly safe in Saint Pierre; there was no reason to leave the city. As a gesture of assurance the governor and his wife came to Saint Pierre; they never left.

The eruptions continued and became more and more violent, and again people began to panic and tried to leave. On the roads to the south the governor stationed soldiers, who in many cases used violence to stem the flow of refugees from Saint Pierre. On May 6 it seemed that Armageddon was upon them as dark, thunderous eruptions issued continuous black, lightning—laced clouds and the city was almost in perpetual darkness.

What more could a volcano do to announce its intentions? The prayers for salvation seemed to be answered as news came of the eruption of La Soufriere on St. Vincent, a neighboring island to the south. Perhaps this outburst would drain away the hot gases from under Mount Pelee and cause its eruptive state to subside.

The next morning it appeared to the suffering populace that the La Soufriere eruption had done just that, because the dark clouds of ash were gone. The plume that rose from the crater of Mount Pelee was clear white steam. It seemed that the worst was over and, just as they had been assured, the people were safe. The respite was short—lived.

Mount Pelee quickly came to life again with loud detonations, clouds shot with lightning, and incandescent material pushed up from the crater. Again talk of mass evacuation prevailed, with soldiers actively preventing an exodus. The editor of Les Colonies, politically ambitious and aligned with several candidates in the forthcoming election, was energetic in reassuring the people. While the paper was reporting the hysteria and describing the scenes of destruction, it still declared, "We confess that we cannot understand the panic. Where would one be better off than at Saint Pierre?" The paper quoted, or actually concluded from an interview with the well—respected Professor Landes, that "The Montagne Pelee presents no more danger to the inhabitants of Saint Pierre than does Vesuvius to those of Naples." It was hoped that these messages in the May 7 edition of Les Colonies, the final edition, would quiet the doubts of the most timid.

It is interesting to note that a sea captain, Marino Leboffe, who had seen Vesuvius in eruption, was anxious to get out of port without delay. On the afternoon of May 7, even though his ship Orsolina was only half—loaded with scheduled cargo, and over the objections of customs officials, he hoisted anchor and sailed from the scene of impending chaos to the safety of the open sea.

The wife of the American consul at Saint Pierre wrote to her sister in Boston that day, telling her there was no cause for alarm. She further assured her sister that they would leave if there was a particle of danger and that there was an American schooner in the harbor for just that purpose. She never lived to regret her decision.

Very early in the morning of May 8 Captain G.T. Muggah of the British steamship Roraima steamed into the harbor at Saint Pierre. The deck was coated with ash that had landed on the ship while it was still at sea. Standing on the bridge, the captain eyed the volcano suspiciously; only a thick column of steam was issuing from Mount Pelee at that time. The captain turned to a passenger and told her he would not remain in this harbor an hour more than necessary. When the ship did leave, the good captain was not on board.

In the post office of Saint Pierre the night—shift telegraph operator was ending his transmission with the latest official report on the volcano. The telegrapher in Fort—de—France, Martinique's capital city twelve miles to the southeast, was getting ready to begin his reply. The time on the wall clock read 7:52 A.M. "Allez," clicked the operator in Saint Pierre, the signal to proceed. The telegrapher in the capital city pressed his key, but the line was dead. At that very moment Saint Pierre had died.

May 8 was Ascension Day, and the morning was clear and sunny. The air vibrated with church bells awakening the populace of Saint Pierre to this holy day. The people were weary since most had spent an almost sleepless night watching the volatile fireworks display of the angry volcano. At 6:30 A.M. the volcano appeared to be resting because only a column of vapor was seen rising from its crater. A gentle westerly breeze deflected the ash away from the city for the first time in days, and the air was less noxious to breathe. In the harbor, at anchor, lay eighteen ships.

It must have been about 7:50 A.M. when the cataclysm started; four staccato reports were heard first by the sailors aboard the ships. A minute later the volcano blew apart. The clock at Hopital Militaire stopped forever at precisely 7:52, marking the exact time of the incineration of the city and its 30,000 inhabitants.

The top of the mountain was plugged solidly with a semisolid mass of viscous lava, so the final eruption was on the side of the volcano facing Saint Pierre. Under tremendous gas pressures a fissure on the flank was forced open, and the fiery cloud was shot at the city with hurricane speed. The initial speed had to be well over one hundred miles per hour, and this increased as it raced down the mountainside. The fiery cloud seemed to clutch the ground as it fell forward, its front tumbling over and over, glowing incandescently with lightning like flashes within its depths. In less than a minute the cloud had reached Saint Pierre, enveloping it like a luminous black sooty blanket and blotting out everything.

Within the nuee ardente itself there is little or no free oxygen necessary for combustion. Thus when it first enveloped Saint Pierre the city was scorched rather than set ablaze. But when the front of the cloud passed and oxygen returned, a matter of a few seconds, the incandescent particles set the superheated Saint Pierre on fire. Thousands of barrels of rum exploded with a roar, adding to the chaos, and the flaming streams of rum resembled lava flows. A number of people, witnesses to the initial explosion, rushed to the docks, seeking safety. As the superheated cloud passed over them, all became human torches. The city was now completely ablaze from one end to the other.

The ships offshore were anchored broadside to the onrushing cloud and received the fiery impact full force. Most of them capsized and sank immediately, and the hulls of all were instantly afire. Only two ships remained afloat, the Roraima and the Roddam. The Roraima lost its captain, along with its funnel and lifeboats; fire was all over the deck. The Roddam heeled until water poured over the rail. She surely would have capsized, but the anchor chain broke, and the ship slowly righted itself. It was on fire from one end to the other.

Assistant Purser Thompson was one of the sixty—eight crew members on board the Roraima who watched the magnificent spectacle of Pelee until the explosion. The following is from his written account of the events of that fateful day:

I saw St. Pierre destroyed. The city was blotted out by one great flash of fire. Of eighteen vessels lying in the road, only the British steamship Roddam escaped and she lost more than half of those on board. It was a dying crew that took her out. . . . There was a tremendous explosion about 7:45. The mountain was blown to pieces. There was no warning. The side of the volcano was ripped out and there was hurled straight towards us a solid wall of flame. It wounded like a thousand cannon.

The wave of fire was on us and over us like a flash of lightning. It was like a hurricane of fire. I saw it strike the cable steamship Grappler broadside on and capsize her. From end to end she burst into flames and then sank. The fire rolled in mass straight down upon St. Pierre. The town vanished before our eyes.

Wherever the mass of fire struck, the sea boiled and sent up vast columns of steam. The sea was torn into huge whirlpools which swirled under the Roraima and pulled her down on her beam end with the suction. The fire wave swept off the masts and smokestacks as if cut by a knife.

Captain Muggah was overcome by the flames. He fell unconscious from the bridge and overboard. The blast of fire from the volcano lasted only a few minutes. It shriveled and set fire to everything it touched. . . . The blazing rum set fire to the Roraima several times.

Before the volcano burst, the landings of St. Pierre were covered with people. After the explosion, not one living soul was seen on the land. Only twenty—five of those on board were left after the first blast.


The full horror of the catastrophe remained unknown to the rest of Martinique for hours. Officials in Fort—de—France were completely stupefied since no word whatsoever had come from the governor, who was still in Saint Pierre. Every attempt to communicate with the city proved futile. Finally the acting governor sent a warship, which arrived at the burning city at about 12:30 P.M. The expedition on board clung to every theory that would invite hope, but all hope vanished when the captain first viewed the city through binoculars. Although they had feared the worst, they were totally unprepared for the scene of devastation, the appalling silence, the view of "a world beyond the grave."

Shore parties abandoned their efforts to penetrate the city because the heat was so suffocating and the ground under them was like a glowing brazier. They could see, however, that the destruction of Saint Pierre was complete. What had once been "the Paris of the West Indies" now had the appearance of ancient archaeological ruins. They could find not a single building still standing, and only the lower portions of stone walls remained intact. The city was one big heap of dirty rubble, and everywhere they looked there were human corpses — in fact, about 30,000 of them.

Death had been very swift and, thankfully, free from suffering. There was a clerk bending over a carbonized ledge, pen still in hand, frozen in the immobility of death. Another was found bent over a washbasin, molded into a semistanding position. There were some in the streets who had managed to stagger a few steps. They lay on the ground with their bodies contorted and hands clutching at scalded mouths and throats. A family of nine was found still sitting around a charcoal breakfast table, their faces seared away. In all, the incinerated bodies of Saint Pierre's residents were found throughout the ruins of the city in every conceivable position.

When the charred bodies of the U.S. consul and his wife were found, both were sitting in chairs facing an open window that looked out on Mount Pelee. They must have seen the volcano explode and watched in awe as flaming death swept down and enveloped them less than a minute later. As the fiery cloud approached, the sight must have been so awesome that they never rose from their chairs. The consul seems to have had an intuition of death, because some months before the catastrophe occurred he told a visitor that he did "not expect to leave the island alive."

The May 8 eruption of Pelee was not a great one when compared with other volcanic outbreaks. The zone of destruction was less than ten square miles, but a set of circumstances made it rank among the most deadly in history.

The first factor was that it was so directional, and unfortunately the city of Saint Pierre lay precisely in its path. Second, from the moment the fiery cloud was ejected, it kept contact with the land until it reached the sea. Its extremely high density made it flow in concentration toward the city rather than losing some of its mass. Little of the gas dissipated by rising in the air.

The final factor of destruction, and by far the most important, was that the city was not evacuated. The people were doubtless quite gullible, easily cowed, and willing to be herded by authorities and other self—serving influences. Newspaper editorials, extensive political doubletalk, and mistaken scientific claims worked together to convince the townspeople that the volcano could not hurt them. Most of the "confused" people remained in Saint Pierre so they could vote in the upcoming elections — but none voted!

Amazingly, in the midst of this holocaust there were two survivors within the city. One was Leon Compere—Leandre, a shoemaker, who recounted the following story:

On May 8th about 8 o'clock in the morning I was seated on the doorstep of my house. . . . All of a sudden I felt a terrible wind blowing and the sky became dark. I turned to go into my house, made with great difficulty the 3 or 4 steps that separated me from my room, and felt my arms and legs burning, also my body. . . . At this moment four others sought refuge in my room, crying and writhing in pain. At the end of ten seconds one of these, the young girl, fell dead; the others left. I then got up and went into the other room where I found the father dead. I went out and found in the court two corpses interlocked. Reentering the house I came upon the bodies of two men. . . . Crazed and almost overcome, I threw myself upon a bed, inert and awaited death. My senses returned to me in perhaps an hour, when I beheld the room burning. With sufficient strength left, my legs bleeding and covered with burns, I ran to Fonds—Saint Denis, 6 kilometers from Saint Pierre.

Apparently Compere's home was located on the very fringe of the area affected by the fiery cloud. But this hardly explains why he should have lived when others were dying all around him. This is but one of many unsolved mysteries of this great catastrophe. The contrasts of the cloud's violence within limited areas were amazing. In the heart of Saint Pierre iron bars were twisted like pretzels, yet a short distance away fragile teacups were left unmoved and unbroken! Many groupings of bodies were found, some completely unclothed, while others in the same pile of bodies were scarcely disturbed and clothes were intact. One charred body was found next to a box of matches, none of which had been ignited. The fact that the fiery cloud can vary in violence within itself was a major factor in saving the life of the shoemaker. He lived in obscurity until his death in 1936.

The other survivor was Auguste Ciparis, a twenty—five—year—old stevedore who was imprisoned in the dungeon of the Saint Pierre jail. His crime was murder, for which he was scheduled to die on the morning of May 8. Instead he lived while all his keepers died. His cell had a single small opening on the door and no window, and this saved his life.

On the morning of his execution the prisoner was awaiting his free breakfast from the state. Instead everything got very dark, and a hot, stifling blast of air flowed through the grating on his cell door. He writhed in agony from the searing heat and fell to the floor. He later said he had absolutely no idea what had happened.

He lay on the floor for almost four days, suffering horribly from his burns and frequently calling for help. To add to his agony, there was no food and little water. He finally heard the sound of human voices above and cried out with what little strength he had left. Ciparis's cry was heard, and as soon as his rescuers established his whereabouts, they cleared away the rubble and freed the living dead man, the second and last survivor within Saint Pierre.

The doctors who later treated his burns doubted that he would live, but he did recover and lived until 1929. The new governor pardoned him for his crime of murder, considering that his four—day trauma while awaiting death or rescue had been punishment enough. Since Ciparis was now a free man, P.T. Barnum lost no time in signing him to his circus. He spent the next few years reenacting his ordeal from a spacious cross section of what represented his cell. The world could now see the survivor of Mount Pelee, billed by Barnum as "the Prisoner of Saint Pierre."

Mount Pelee's work was not complete; on May 20 a second eruption struck the city, but there was no more damage to be done. On August 30 it blew up again, this time killing nearly 2,000 more people in the neighboring towns. The most impressive thing to rise from Pelee was a huge mass of solidified lava. It grew straight up at the rate of about thirty feet per day, and by May 30, 1903, slightly more than a year after the catastrophe, it reached a height of 1,020 feet. Such a structure is known as a spine; this monolith was named "The Tower of Pelee." A photo taken at its maximum height shows the tower in the distance protruding from the peak of the volcano. Overlooking the ruins of the city, it seemed to serve as a memorial to the dead.

The tower was very brittle, and eruptions and internal unrest of the volcano caused it to fall apart rapidly. Great chunks of rock broke off the top and sides, and within a year the spine was reduced to a mass of broken debris. So ended the eruption cycle of 1902 and 1903.

Between the years 1929 and 1932 there were several more eruptions from Mount Pelee. On September 10, 1929, some minor explosions occurred, with ash once again falling on the streets of Saint Pierre. The people who had rebuilt and repopulated part of the city after the 1902 disaster needed no further excuse to depart. Saint Pierre is today a peaceful town, but it has never achieved the eminence of the pre—Pelee holocaust.

There has been little volcanic activity from Pelee since 1932, and a small museum has been established as a memorial of the tragedy of 1902. With "before" and "after" photographs of the city and artifacts preserved from the moment of the eruption, tourists are vividly reminded and natives will never forget. The story of the death of Saint Pierre is repeated regularly, often with the assurance that Mount Pelee is not an extinct volcano. However, because the zone is still tectonically very active, the volcano is far from extinct; instead it has entered a dormant stage. Its interior is slowly building up fiery molten energy while the outside of the volcano remains quiet and uneventful. In truth the volcano is merely asleep.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth