Prelude To Doomsday

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Although reports of that tragedy reached the United States almost at once—by May 10, 1902, the Senate had already passed an aid bill—the first official confirmation that a catastrophe of appalling magnitude had taken place on the nation’s very doorstep was a cable which the State Department in Washington received on Sunday, May 11, 1902. Its contents were transmitted to the President in the White House at once. Signed by United States Consul Aymé, stationed on the island of Guadeloupe, near Martinique, the message read:

DISASTER COMPLETE. CITY WIPED OUT. CONSUL PRENTIS AND FAMILY DEAD. GOVERNOR SAYS 30,000 DEAD, 50,000 HOMELESS, HUNGRY. ASK RED CROSS CODFISH FLOUR BEANS RICE SALT MEATS BISCUITS QUICK AS POSSIBLE. VISIT OF WAR VESSELS VALUABLE.

The cable had been sent from Fort-de-France. The city wiped out was the “little Paris,” St. Pierre. Fragmentary reports dribbling to the press stated that not one person survived, that within a few seconds St. Pierre and all its people had ceased to exist. The destroying agent was the long-dormant volcano—Mount Pelée. But by what means this destructiveness had obliterated 30,000 human beings and annihilated their city the shocked world waited to hear.

President Theodore Roosevelt reacted to the consular alert with characteristic vigor, instructing the Secretaries of War, Navy, and Treasury to start relief measures at once, without regard for red tape. The U.S. cruiser Cincinnati, lying at Santo Domingo, and the Navy tug Potomac at San Juan, Puerto Rico, were ordered by the President to proceed to the disaster area under full steam. The Army had stores of food and clothing in its Philadelphia supply depot, but no transport available. Fortunately, the ship Dixie, a former freighter equipped to carry cargo, was at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, just back from a training cruise, and her Captain Berry was ordered to take aboard supplies as fast as they reached the dock and sail at the earliest possible moment. By that evening trainloads of foodstuffs, bedding, tents, clothing, and other supplies were rolling in from Philadelphia, and stevedores were straining to stow the shipment in the Dixie’s holds.

At noon Monday President Roosevelt asked Congress for an immediate appropriation of $500,000 for emergency assistance to the victims of the calamity; all Martinique and its 160,000 surviving souls might have to be evacuated, it was feared. Said the President in his urgent message to the Capitol:

One of the greatest calamities in history has befallen our neighboring island of Martinique … The city of St. Pierre has ceased to exist … The government of France … inform us that Fort-de-France and the entire island of Martinique are still threatened. They therefore request that, for the purpose of rescuing the people who are in such deadly peril and threatened with starvation, the government of the United States may send as soon as possible the means of transporting them from the stricken island.

Congress voted $200,000 on the spot, and set hearings to determine what larger sum might be needed when the full nature of the disaster could be learned. In an appeal for public funds, the President empowered postmasters to receive donations for relief of the victims; the Red Cross swung into action; the mayors of New York, Chicago, Boston, and other cities seconded the appeal: a national committee of prominent citizens took charge of chartering supply ships, detouring some at sea toward the inferno in the Antilles. And at nine thirty Wednesday evening the Dixie sailed, carrying 900,000 rations and vitally needed medical equipment, with doctors, army officers, reporters, and scientists. England, Germany, France, Italy, Denmark, Japan, Russia, and the Vatican eagerly followed the United States’ lead, and so unanimous was the response that one week later the Red Cross was able to announce that the first emergency had been surmounted successfully and no more contributions would be needed. Never, even in wartime, have the nations of the world responded with greater swiftness and generosity to a humanitarian appeal.

As skilled observers converged on the scene, the story of St. Pierre’s annihilation was pieced together. And these accounts employed phrases—such as allusions to a death-dealing “mushroom cloud” and to destructive energy of an immensity almost incalculable—which, had newspaper readers of 1902 been gifted with prescience, would have carried an added fearsomeness.

SIDEBAR: "YOU COULD NEVER FORGET THOSE EVENTS"

At four in the morning of the next Wednesday, May 21, steaming under a clear, starry sky, the Dixie came abreast of the northern tip of Martinique. Everyone aboard strained to make out Pelée’s formidable outline; but the devil mountain was shrouded from base to summit in a mantle of dense, dark vapor, above which rose a column of steam like an immense thunderhead half a mile high. Silently the Dixie continued to Fort-de-France.