Sunday, March 28, 2010

The devastation of St. Pierre

At 7:50am on May 8, 1902, Mt. Pelée on the French-Caribbean island of Martinique roared to life. In a single minute, the deafening blast sent a superheated cloud of gas, ash, and rock (2nd image) down the south slope of the volcano, killing the 28,000 residents of St. Pierre, the "Paris of the West Indies." The crews and passengers of 18 ships were also killed. There were, at most, 2 survivors.

One of these was Léon Compere-Léandre, a young shoemaker, who described the disaster that struck as he was sitting on his doorstep on the outskirts of the city:

"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 difficultuy 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 garmets 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 to 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-Sait-Denis, six kilometers from St. Pierre."

The other man to survive had a prison cell to thank for his protection - a cell which still exists (3rd image). Louis-Auguste Cyparis a.k.a. Ludger Sylbarus (c. 1875-c. 1929) was a 25-year-old imprisoned for wounding a friend with a cutlass. Four days after the eruption, he was found, and received a pardon after he recovered from his burns. Cyparis joined the Barnum & Bailey Circus and was billed as "The Lone Survivor of St. Pierre" (1st image). He showed his burns and toured with a replica of his cell.

A 3rd apocryphal witness to the events narrowly escaped being killed by them. A young girl named Havivra Da Ifrile was on an errand halfway up the flank of Mt. Pelée on her way to church services in St. Pierre when she saw smoke emerge from the crater and engulf residents of the city. She ran to her brother's boat on the show and rowed to refuge in a cave. "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," she remembered. She lost consciousness and was found drifting 2 miles out to sea.

After the eruption, a lava dome rose 1,000' out of the crater of the volcano, finally collapsing 11 months later. Coincidentally (because it was not the catalyst for this post), Mt. Pelée's dome partially collapsed in February of this year and heavy rains triggered a series of small to moderate pyroclastic flows.

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