- 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
Up to this time, St. Pierre’s only newspaper, the afternoon daily Les Colonies, had barely mentioned the volcano’s tricks, devoting most of its attention to the really exciting news—the political campaign for electing two deputies to the French Parliament; the final voting was to take place in two weeks. In the issue of Thursday, May 1, the editor had accorded Pelée’s surprising activity devious recognition in the course of a notice about a proposed picnic on the mountain, which read, in part:
We remind our readers that the grand excursion to Mt. Pelée organized by members of La Société Gymnastique et de Tir (Gymnastic and Shooting Club) will take place next Sunday, May 4. … If the weather be fine, the excursionists will pass a day that they will long keep in pleasant remembrance.
The violent occurrences of the night of May 2 modified this editorial unconcern somewhat, and a few lines in the issue of Saturday, May 3, conveyed the intelligence that the proposed outings had been postponed indefinitely, “the crater being absolutely inaccessible.”
At the lycée and other schools, students were dismissed. Bell-ringers circulated through the streets directing householders to water the pavements in front of their doors to lay the dust. Attempts to drive toward Prêcheur failed when horses refused to budge, all traces of roads having been obliterated. Farm animals were reported dying of hunger and thirst. The Governor of Martinique, M. L. Mouttet, came from Fort-de-France on the cruiser Suchet to inspect the situation and arrange some provisional accommodation for the hundreds of refugees from Prêcheur and other northern towns who were crowding into the city. He ordered the military barracks to be thrown open for their use.
It had been hoped that Morne Rouge, high above St. Pierre, would be spared the ash rain because of the easterly winds sweeping across it, but it, too, was now covered with cinders, and its population was stricken by fear. During Friday night the priest, Father Mary, threw open the church, which a crowd quickly filled; all received communion, while outside the walls Pelée roared and rumbled.
In St. Pierre’s charming cathedral, scenes of panic were enacted, people of all stations in life, all colors, all ages, beseeching absolution with outstretched arms. In the churches priests baptized and heard confessions hour after hour. Families living in the suburbs or on nearby plantations moved to the city, and even Les Colonies conceded that “St. Pierre is in a state of agitation. The city is depressed.” Yet in spite of the volcano’s thundering, the populace waited for its angry mood to subside. Life went on much as usual, modified by unusual difficulties: in the market housewives chaffered over the few fresh vegetables on display, and bakers were harassed by complaints of gritty ashes in the bread.
During Saturday, the wind shifted and blew the never-ceasing ash cloud toward the north, giving St. Pierre a respite. News came that day that the Soufrière, on the island of St. Vincent, lying to the southward, was erupting, and fear of a destructive earthquake was intensified.
On Sunday, May 4, land communication between St. Pierre and the Prêcheur district was severed, and the ash rain fell so densely that boats skirting the coast feared to navigate through it. The sea was littered with dead birds. Children of peasant refugees, lost and forlorn, wandered aimlessly through the city with their little donkeys, dazed and adrift.
By now many citizens had become really uneasy, and some businessmen began sending their families to higher ground, deeming that safer. The little steamers that plied to Fort-de-France were thronged on every trip: in one day they carried three hundred passengers, contrasted with a normal traffic flow of eighty.
Far from reassuring was the description, appearing in Les Colonies, of a reader’s walk through the stricken countryside north of the city, in the direction of Pelée. Scuffling through the deep layer of ashes, the writer said, gave “the impression of walking delightfully through fine flour. Soil and plants and houses all alike are powdered with a grayish snow; in the countryside, desolation, aridity, and great silence prevail. In the meadows the animals are restless, bleating, neighing, and bellowing despairingly.”
The immobilized inhabitants of St. Pierre feared but did not flee. On Sunday, May 4, a woman, torn by anxiety, wrote to her brother in Marseilles:
I write under the gloomiest impressions, although I hope I exaggerate the situation. My husband laughs; but I can see that he is full of anxiety. He tells me to go. How can I go alone? The heat is suffocating. We cannot leave anything open, as the dust enters everywhere, burning our faces and eyes. All the crops are ruined.
And a second letter addressed that Sunday to a relative in France concluded fatalistically: