Prelude To Doomsday

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The city burned for days. Sanitation parties penetrated the calcined ruins bit by bit, to dispose of the dead by burning; burial was out of the question. The stench was sickening. Thousands of victims lay under a shroud of ashes, heaped in windrows several feet deep, caked by the rains; many of these bodies were not retrieved for weeks, and few were identifiable.

The structural obliteration of St. Pierre was completed on May 20, when a second eruption, tallying almost exactly with the murderous visitation of May 8 and equaling that blast in sheer force, leveled whatever buildings were still standing. The wall of the military hospital with its telltale clockface went down into the rubble then. Thereafter Pelée continued to erupt spasmodically.

On August 30 Pelée again sent out its death cloud, and Morne Rouge and several adjacent hamlets were destroyed, with a loss of 1,500 to 2,000 lives. Among the victims was the heroic priest of Notre Dame de La Délivrande, Father Mary, who had remained at his post in spite of the danger. In his presbytery when the cloud descended, he endeavored to gain the protection of the stone church, a few paces away, but was struck down. He succeeded in crawling to a bench inside the church door, and there was found by rescuers; but he died two days later.

During these later outbursts, the relief dispatched so promptly by the world’s generosity sufficed to ease the lot of the frightened islanders, and talk of evacuating the island died down. The refugees moved back to their homes and garden plots, were driven out by fresh eruptions, and moved back again. For months, while the volcano gradually quieted, reporters and scientists supplied newspapers and magazines with spectacular descriptions of the calamity and debated its probable cause. In the United States, interest waned; the West Indies held little attraction for that Yankee generation. And to a people bred amid the greater violence of two world wars, St. Pierre became a vague memory and at length was all but forgotten.

There was no resurrection. Dead cities are rebuilt by their survivors, and St. Pierre had none. Life and death crowd each other inexorably in the tropics, and luxuriant vegetation swiftly covered the hideous scars. Up Pelée’s slopes the forests crept again; the streams ran clear. Although recurrently, during the twenties and thirties, the volcano spewed out its black cloud, it took no lives. Cane fields again rippled around its base, and along the waterfront where men once sang as they toiled, fishermen built huts in the angles of old basements. But neither these simple homes, nor the occupants of the village that eventually collected, bore any relationship or resemblance to the vanished city. A way of life, charming, unique, and irreplaceable, was gone forever, violently expunged from the earth; its fate symbolized by a white ossuary standing starkly upon the green hillside, enshrining innumerable bones.

“You could never forget those events”