Mount Pelee Volcanic Eruption – May 8, 1902

The eruption burst out of the side of the volcano rather than from the top. As a result the cloud of pyroclastic material swept rapidly across the ground, overwhelming the city of Saint-Pierre.

On May 8, 1902, Mount Pelee, a volcano on the Island of Martinique in the Lesser Antilles, Caribbean, erupted and destroyed Saint-Pierre, a city of 30,000 people that was located about four miles from the volcano. Every person in the city, with a few exceptions, was killed. A pyroclastic flow of superheated gases and fragments of volcanic material had swept rapidly along the surface of the ground instead of moving upward into the atmosphere as often happens with volcanic eruptions. In this case it seems that a mass of magma had solidified near the top of the volcano, preventing the escape of material vertically when internal pressures reached the point of eruption, thus forcing a horizontal outburst of hot lava and gases. The people of Saint-Pierre as well as those on ships in the harbor were overwhelmed by a mass of red-hot volcanic material racing toward the city at 100 mph.

Martinique, in 1902, was a colony of France with a total population of less than 50,000. Its first European occupant was Christopher Columbus in 1502 but European permanent settlement did not occur for another 133 years. In 1535, one French company took possession of the island and set up plantation for the production of cotton, tobacco, and sugar. Slavery was introduced early in the eighteenth century in order to provide sufficient labor for these plantations. Slavery was finally abolished in 1848 and today it is a self-governing overseas department of France with a population of half a million.

Martinique forms part of a chain of islands in the eastern Caribbean south of the Tropic of Cancer. Mount Pelee is still there, inactive, towering 4,000 feet high over Saint-Pierre, now just a village. In 1902 it was the principal city on the island, often referred to as the Paris of the West Indies, a popular tourist destination. There were plenty of warnings in 1902 of the approaching eruption. For more than a week before May 8 there had been a continuous sequence of minor explosions at the summit and numerous tremors and showers of ash that reached Saint-Pierre making breathing difficult. In addition, large numbers of red ants, centipedes, and snakes moved away from the mountain and invaded the city. Fifty people died as a result of snakebites during this time.

A group of colonial officials visited the mountain four days before the eruption and declared that there was no need for an evacuation. When the volcano actually erupted and the pyroclastic flow reached the city, thousands of barrels of rum stored in the city’s warehouses exploded, sending rivers of the flaming liquid through the streets and into the sea. The flow continued to advance over the harbor to destroy twenty ships anchored offshore. The hurricane force of the blast capsized the steamship Grappler, and its scorching heat set ablaze the American sailing ship Roraima, killing most of her passengers and crew. The Roraima had the misfortune of arriving only a few hours before the eruption. Those on board could only watch in horror as the cloud descended on them after annihilating the city of Saint-Pierre. Two sailors managed to get overboard into the protection of water.

The surface water was too hot but by staying at a deeper level as long as they could and only coming to the surface briefly for air they were able to survive until temperatures dropped to a level that would not destroy their lungs. They saw the city covered with a dark, dense cloud, from beneath which emerged a constant roar, like the noise of cannons, as homes and storage units caught fire. When the black cloud lifted for a few minutes they saw that there was another layer of cloud beneath, a yellow one, presumably sulfur gases. Later, as the temperature became bearable, they swam to shore. They found a scene of total desolation with no sign of life of any kind and no ships anywhere. The only ship that managed to escape from the harbor on May 8 was the Roddam, a steam-powered vessel from England. One or two sailors were able to slip the anchor chain and allow the ship to crawl away. The captain was seriously injured and in great pain but was able to navigate his ship to port in Saint Lucia, an island fifty miles south of Martinique. Those from there who came aboard the Roddam described its condition. A fine bluish mass of dust covered everything.

It looked like cement and was five feet deep in places. It was evident that the dust had fallen all over the ship in a red-hot state, setting fire to everything that was flammable. It fell on people, burning off limbs and large pieces of flesh. Much of the latter was uncovered after debris was removed from the deck. Eighteen dead bodies lay on the deck. All the rigging, tarpaulins, and awnings had been either charred or burned. Stanchions and spars had gone overboard, skylights were smashed, and the cabins below them were filled with volcanic dust. Some of the more substantial stone buildings in Saint-Pierre, though seriously damaged by the eruption, were still erect next day, but an aftershock from Mount Pelee hit the area less than two weeks after the first one and reduced to rubble whatever remained standing. Saint-Pierre became a dead city.

Fort-de-France is now the main urban center for the island. One lucky person happened to be a prisoner when the eruption occurred. He had been 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. In the morning of May 8 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 breath as much as he could in spite of the intense pain of having to inhale red-hot air. Gradually the heat subsided. He was severely burned but fortunately the amount of hot air that came into his prison was far less than the amounts experienced by everyone else in Saint-Pierre.

He remained in his prison for four days, managing to survive in a half-conscious state, suffering great pain and having difficulty breathing, until people found him. 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 Saint-Pierre.” The saddest aspect of the whole terrible catastrophe that had struck Saint-Pierre was the appearance of looters. They came looking for money, jewels, and other valuables in the ruins. The French colonial authorities were ruthless with situations of this type. Their marines put an immediate stop to it, often shooting looters on sight when necessary. Mount Pelee’s geological setting explains the frequency of its eruptions. The Caribbean Tectonic Plate of which Martinique forms a part is being pushed upward as the North American Plate slides beneath it. This plate includes an area of the Atlantic beyond the land areas of the continent. At a rate of about an inch a year North American Plate slides westward beneath the Caribbean Plate.

The magma that moves upward into Mount Pelee originated in an area between the North American Tectonia Plate and the crust near the surface of Mount Pelee. Mount Pelee first erupted about 200,000 years ago and, over the years, geologists have found eruptions emanating from it at intervals of 50–150 years. Over historic times this mountain was active in the following years: 1792, 1851, 1902, and right up to the present time. The remains of three craters are visible at the higher elevations of Pelee. The largest and oldest of these was the focus of eruptions from earliest times right up to 40,000 years ago but over the years since that time the topography of the mountain has changed considerably until by 1902 only the two smaller craters were visible. By 1898 the first signs of new activity became clear. Tragically, politics—concentrating on an upcoming election—and lack of knowledge of volcanic eruptions, contributed to the indifference that was shown by the people of Martinique to the warning signs that came before May 8.

One day before the eruption of Mount Pelee, an almost identical type of event occurred on the island of Saint Vincent, a hundred miles south of Martinique in the same chain of islands that form the Lesser Antilles. The volcanic mountain that erupted on Saint Vincent was La Soufriere. The day before the eruption there was an earthquake in the same location and many concluded that this earthquake was the trigger than initiated the eruption. Fortunately, unlike Martinique, the people of Saint Vincent had taken precautions as they saw menacing signs coming from the mountain so the death toll was much less than it would otherwise have been. As La Soufriere erupted, a red-hot ash cloud, mixed with steam and gas, swept down on the citizens in the towns below. People perished quickly from ash asphyxiation or from burns. Some escaped by going into cellars and others were able to get into the ocean before the deadly blast of volcanic material reached them.

Two thousand people lost their lives. One newspaper report from that time described Saint Vincent as being covered with ashes to an average depth of eighteen inches, so that all crops were ruined and many homes had collapsed under the weight of falling ash. Five thousand destitute citizens were in need of assistance from their government. Saint Vincent had to cope with the problem of burying those who died, a task that never arose in Martinique since the devastation was total and very little was left of the bodies of the dead. This part of the world has a very hot climate, so bodies decompose quickly. Gangs of men were organized to pick up the dead and arrange to have them buried in mass graves. It was not always possible to do this as many had taken shelter in huts and they died there. It was difficult to get each body out of these huts and there was little time available for the task before decomposition raised the danger of disease.

Decisions had to be made quickly because this was a Catholic society, used to burying people in the ground, and the situation demanded incineration. Quite apart from the urgency of burying the dead there were large numbers of injured people who needed attention. The Ambulance Corps attempted to help these victims. They were in great pain, wanting a drink of water but unable to consume it because of the damage done to their faces. Almost all of them died within a short time. Many eminent researchers visited Mount Pelee and Soufriere after the eruptions because they were interested in the exceptionally high death toll and the unusual feature of Mount Pelee’s eruption emerging as a horizontal blast of volcanic substances.

A new aspect of the study of volcano- logy began to take shape. Among the scientists there was one, Thomas Jaggar, an assistant professor of geology at MIT, who was overcome by the high death rate and the extensive level of destruction. He decided, then and there, to devote his career to studying eruptions in order to save lives and began to search for a place that would be suitable for such a research center. The quest took him to the state of Hawaii and to the Kilauea Volcano. He managed to raise funds for the establishment of a research center at the site of that volcano. He searched the world for a volcano suitable for continuous study and chose Kilauea.

The entrepreneurial Jaggar raised the funds, took a leave of absence from MIT, and established the new Hawaiian Volcanic Observatory (HVO) in 1912. HVO would be dedicated to the development of monitoring tools, strategies, and knowledge. All focused on his motto for HVO, “no more shall the cities be destroyed. “

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