- Historic Sites
Prelude To Doomsday
While the volcano rumbled, lovely little St. Pierre slumbered on. It awoke only to die—in a terrible preview of nuclear holocaust
August 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 5
St. Pierre, it was there learned, had not been overwhelmed without warning. Early in April some harmless volcanic activity had been noted by excursionists near the summit of Pelée—the appearance of furmaroles, or smoke holes, that gave off a faintly sulphurous vapor—but no great attention was paid to it; similar vents had appeared and disappeared in the past without causing anxiety. There was, however, much exasperated complaining about the inconsiderateness of Papa Pelée—his bad manners, in emitting such an odor.
On April 23 a light rain of cinders informed villagers on the southern and western slopes of the mountain of definite activity: sharp underground shocks were felt, and at first were mistaken for earthquakes; in St. Pierre dishes were knocked off shelves. No alarm was expressed, merely impatience over the discomfort, and it was expected that the gaseous exhalations would soon cease.
On April 25 the mountain awoke, and St. Pierre was enthralled by the wild spectacle of Pelée hurling a vast cloud charged with rocks and ashes straight upward from its summit, or from the basin of the Étang Sec. No anxiety was entertained, since the damage being done by the ejected material was trifling. In a routine letter to a correspondent in Bordeaux that day, a businessman mentioned casually that “old Pelée is smoking again this morning, the first time in fifty years.”
The next day a second eruption dusted the landscape with ash, and some inhabitants began to worry. The public authorities saw no reason for concern.
On April 27 a party of excursionists climbed the peak and found the Étang Sec, long a dry hollow, transformed into a lake six hundred feet across. On one side a cone or chimney of volcanic debris had been built up, standing perhaps fifty feet high; from it cascaded a steady stream of boiling water and stones, while deep underground there were sounds like a cauldron seething and boiling. The volcano had forced open a vent, but this was considered a scientific curiosity rather than a sign of impending danger.
No account of this excursion was published immediately, but it furnished gossip in the clubs and cafés; the consensus was that the opening would serve as an escape valve to ease the pressure of the heated mass inside the mountain, and thus was a guarantee that there would be no general eruption.
Nevertheless, the activity of the mountain continued to be vexatious. Toward the end of April, Mrs. Thomas T. Prentis, wife of the American consul in St. Pierre, wrote with mingled annoyance and confidence to her sister in Melrose, Massachusetts:
We can see Mount Pelée from the rear windows of our house, and although it is nearly four miles away we can hear the roar. The city is covered with ashes. The smell of sulphur is so strong that horses on the street stop and snort, and some of them drop in their harness and die from suffocation. Many of the people are obliged to wear handkerchiefs to protect them from the strong fumes of sulphur. My husband assures me that there is no immediate danger, and when there is the least particle of danger we will leave the place.
All this while, detonations resembling thunder occasionally shook the ground, and severe disturbances in the ocean’s floor were observed; cables were snapped.
On April 30 the Roxelane and Rivière des Pères suddenly became raging torrents, washing down masses of boulders and whole trees from the upper mountain. At the same time the coastal villages of Prêcheur and Ste. Philomè ne, north of the city, received a steady rain of ashes. Fear was now kindled in these districts, lying on the westerly slope of the volcano; early on May 1, Monseigneur Parel, vicar general at Fort-de-France, officiating as ecclesiastical administrator while the bishop was in France, received a disquieting telegram from the priest at Prêcheur, saying: “Serious volcanic eruption; since morning we have been covered with ashes; we ask for prayers.”
On Friday, May 2, half an hour before midnight, the eruption suddenly assumed a more threatening aspect. Pierrotins were startled out of their sleep by terrifying detonations, like thunderous salvos fired by all the guns of all the battle fleets of the world; at the same time Mount Pelée shot upward a pillar of dense black smoke that was laced with brilliant lightning. Ominous rumblings accompanied a quivering of the earth. Alarmed citizens ran into the streets half-dressed to watch the awesome display. Fearing an earthquake, many left their homes for the rest of the night, taking refuge in open squares and courtyards. Ashes, meanwhile, were falling over the entire northern half of the island; even Fort-de-France, sixteen miles from the peak, was dusted with fine-grained pumice. On the volcano’s flanks country folk abandoned their cabins in terror and crowded into nearby villages, carrying a few belongings snatched up in haste. At Prêcheur the church was filled with praying, weeping men and women demanding absolution, convinced that their last hour had come.
Dawn disclosed St. Pierre buried under whitish ashes like new-fallen snow. All that day frightful detonations were heard at intervals of five or six hours, and the expediency of leaving the city was discussed publicly. However, almost nobody mustered sufficient determination to depart.