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May 8, 1902: La Pelée

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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My Dear Sister: This morning the whole population of the city is on the alert and every eye is directed toward Mont Pelee, an extinct volcano. Everybody is afraid that the volcano has taken into its heart to burst forth and destroy the whole island.
Mrs. Thomas T. Prentis, wife of the United States Consul at St. Pierre, to her sister in Melrose (Boston). After May 8, rescuers discovered the charred corpses of both the consul and his wife, sitting in chairs in front of a window that faced Pelée. The bodies of their children were never found.

Despite recognized as volcano, Mount Pelée – the “bald headed” mountain, owning possibly its name to the devastation of an volcanic eruption occurred in 1635 – on the island of Martinique was considered extinct since 1767, when an eruption killed more than 16.000 people. However in 1856 the mountain showed signs of unrest, with minor eruptions of steam and single mudflows descending the slopes.

Fig.1. A relief map of Mount Pelée showing the area affected by the eruptions of May 8, and August 3, 1902, after Lacrox 1904. Note on the summit of the volcano two depressions: “L´Etang Sec”, a temporary lake, and the lake “Lac de Palmistes” (image in public domain).

In April 1902 the old father – as the mountain was referred by the locals -  awoke again with violent explosions and on the summit a small basin became filled with boiling water – the L’Etang Sec (the dry lake) was born.
In April the local newspaper “Les Colonies” noted:

The rain of ashes on St. Pierre) never ceases. At about half-past nine the sun shone forth timidly. The passing of carriages in the streets is no longer heard. The wheels are muffled [in the ashes]. Puffs of wind sweep the ashes from the roofs and awnings, and blow them into rooms of which the windows have imprudently been left open.

Many residents left the city, but they became immediately replaced by refugees from the area surrounding the volcano and many non-residents coming to town for the election of the new island governor May 10.
On May 5, heavy rain occurred and a natural dam holding back the boiling water of L´Etang Sec collapsed. A gigantic mudflow rushed down the slopes of Pelée and buried completely a sugar mill. 150 people were killed; the waves generated by the flow in the sea reached even the harbour of St. Pierre.
In an effort to tranquillize the public and hold the voters in the city the French governor appointed a commission to investigate the dangers from the volcano. Again the newspaper “Les Colonies” reported:

[Professor Landes of the Lycée concludes that] Mt. Pelée presents no more danger to the inhabitants of Saint Pierre than does Vesuvius to those of Naples.”

Fig. 2. The newspaper “Les Colonies” May 7, 1902 with the statement that La Pelée “presents no danger”, 24 hours later all journalists and the editor were dead (image in public domain).

Irony of history: The Italian Marino Leboffe, Captain of the freighter “Orsolina” anchoring in the harbour, complained on May 2, to the local authorities:

I know nothing about Mount Pelée, but if Vesuvius were looking the way your volcano looks this morning, I’d get out of Naples.

On May 7, the volcano La Soufriére on the nearby island of St. Vincent exploded. The people of Martinique hoped that the violent eruption released enough pressure from the interior of the earth to prevent the imminent eruption of  the Pelée.

May 8, seemed to be a sunny day. A column of steam was rising above Pelée, but otherwise the volcano appeared to be calm.
At 7:50 in the morning the Pelée erupted, causing possibly four pyroclastic currents.

Fig.3. A sequence of a pyroclastic flow – photographed December 16, 1902 at La Pelée by French volcanologist Alfred Lacroix. Lacroux will propose the first modern classification of volcanic activity – one explosive type will be known as “Pelean type”. This particular kind of eruption is common on convergent plate margins and characterized by its explosive character and dangerous pyroclastic density currents, as explained by volcanologist Jessica Ball (image in public domain).

Estimated 28.000 to 40.000 people died, only three survivors were reported. The young shoemaker Léon Compère-Léandre (1874-1936) escaped from the border of St. Pierre into the village of Fonds-Saint-Denis, the girl Havivra Da Ifrile tried to escape to a cave near the coast and was washed onto the sea, where she was rescued days later. To Da Ifrile we owe one or the rare eyewitnesses accounts of the eruption:

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,…

Fig.4. and 5. Photograph of St. Pierre, Martinique, in the 19th century long before the eruption, and photograph by Angelo Heilprin of St. Pierre after the eruption of Mount Pelée on May 8, 1902. The monstrous blast and subsequent pyroclastic flows wiped out the entire city, only four locals survived this day of the final eruption, one was staying outside the city, the other three escaped or survived by mere chance (images in public domain).

One of the most well-know survivor was the 25-year-old dockworker Louis-Auguste Cyparis (1875-1929), who survived in his small prison cell and became known as the “Samson of St. Pierre” in the Barnum & Bailey Circus, where he worked and told his story after his “adventure”.

On May 20, Pelée exploded again investing the ruins of the city and killing 2.000 rescuers, engineers, and mariners bringing supplies to the island.

Fig.6. From October 1902 to September 1903 (when it collapsed) a 300m high obelisk of lava formed from  L´Etang Sec, the American scientist Angel Heilprin noted that it resembled a “. . . nature’s monument dedicated to the 30,000 dead who lay in the silent city below” (image in public domain).

Bibliography:

DAVIS, L. (2008): Natural Disasters. Facts on File Sience Library. Infobase Publishing: 464
HEILPRIN, A.(1903): Mont Pelée and the Tragedy of Martinique. J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia and London: 335.
LACROIX, A. (1904) : La Montagne Pelée et ses éruptions. Masson et Cie, Paris.
MORRIS, C. (2006): The San Francisco Calamity by Earthquake and Fire. Librivox.

Online Resources:

ALEAN, J. ; CARNIEL, R. & FULLE, M. (15.05.2007): La Montagne Pelée und Saint Pierre – September 2005. (Accessed 08.05.2012)
Cerimes (01.01.1974): Eruption de la montagne Pelée – 8 Mai 1902. (Accessed 08.05.2012)

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. ErnestPayne 5:05 pm 05/8/2012

    I have a few postcards of the post eruption St. Pierre. A very eerie looking place. Is there any reason the recent eruptions on Montserrat did not produce similar results?

    Link to this

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