- 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
This complacency was not shared by Captain Marina Leboffe, of the Italian barque Orsolina , home port Naples, loading sugar in the harbor. On Wednesday morning, Leboffe studied the mountain, and then, with only half his cargo stowed, announced that he intended to sail at once. The shippers protested indignantly, port authorities refused to give him clearance, he was threatened with arrest, but the Neapolitan skipper retorted: “I know nothing about Mt. Pelée, —but if Vesuvius were looking the way your volcano looks this morning, I’d get out of Naples!” And he sailed, leaving sixteen vessels in the roadstead.
From St. Vincent, then, came word that the Soufrière had burst into total eruption, deluging its end of the island with mud and lava. This engendered hope at St. Pierre that the internal pressure on Pelée’s crater vent would be correspondingly relieved.
By Wednesday evening, La Montagne’s paroxysms seemed to become feebler. The next day, Thursday, being the Feast of the Ascension, a holy day of obligation, all business would observe the holiday. Special masses were to be celebrated in the churches, with prayers for deliverance. The mood of indecision and hopeful fatalism was strong: where better off could one be than in St. Pierre? Governor Mouttet and his lady were in the city, evincing no alarm, and surely he should know what the chances really were.
It was hot and close all during the night of Wednesday, May 7. The air seemed unnaturally still, and Pelée emitted its lofty pennant of steam tranquilly, without fracas. But at 4 A.M. the rumbling started again, and the volcano began shooting upward a dark ash cloud that drifted westward over the sea, pushed by the trade wind; fiery cinders streaked this vertical column of rolling, black vapor.
At 6:30 A.M. the passenger steamship Roraima dropped anchor in the harbor; her decks were gray with falling ashes, and passengers and crew lined the rail to watch the awesome spectacle of a volcano in full eruption. A short while later another passenger ship, the steamer Roddam, anchored close inshore.
Ascension Day dawned clear and sunny, and the air of the city vibrated with the ringing of church bells, the lighter voices of the parish bells mingling with the throaty resonance of the cathedral’s bourdon. On the heights around the city, suburban residents, after a wakeful night, stood viewing the mountain’s stupendous display of fireworks. Offshore, about eight miles west of the choked mouth of the Rivière Blanche, above which only the tip of the smokestack of the Guérin sugar works protruded from a solidified glacier of mud, the repair ship Pouyer-Quertier was grappling for a broken cable. In the St. Pierre post office, the night-shift telegrapher wound up transmission of the latest official reports on the volcano, mentioning no significant new developments, and the operator at Fort-de-France began his reply. The hands of the clock on the wall of St. Pierre’s military hospital pointed to 7:52 when the Fort-de-France telegrapher paused.
“ Allez,” clicked the operator in St. Pierre—the signal to proceed.
The operator in Fort-de-France pressed his key, but the line was dead. In that second St. Pierre died.
A few instants later, a stupendous, roaring explosion rent the air above Fort-de-France, and beyond the peaks of Carbet, which shut off St. Pierre, an enormous column of black smoke was seen to dart up and up with incredible swiftness, mushroom out, and fill the whole sky, eating up the light. The church of Fort-de-France, where the eight o’clock mass was just beginning, in a twinkling was emptied of everyone but the priests. In sudden, absolute darkness, darkness so terrible one could not discern objects twelve inches away, the people knelt in the streets and wailed incoherently. What could be happening at St. Pierre? Everybody realized that some awful catastrophe must have befallen that city.
The Pouyer-Quertier at 7:52 was sending a working message to St. Pierre, with the city in clear view. Suddenly the crew saw the upper flank of the mountain facing south appear to open, and from the gap a dense black vapor shot out like smoke from the muzzle of a cannon. Simultaneously, they saw a second black cloud—the one visible in Fort-de-France—rolling upward in gigantic whorls, mushrooming out, and quickly covering the entire sky with an umbrella of darkness fifty miles across. Both clouds traveled with unbelievable speed, their initial velocity being calculated at six to seven miles a minute.
The horizontal cloud sped down the mountain slope, tumbling over and over noiselessly toward the city. It seemed to clutch the ground, falling forward rather than floating, as though composed of some heavy, inert, violently propelled substance. Its forefront exuded puffs of smoke, “like leaping lions,” and sometimes it glowed incandescently, while lightning-like scintillations and explosions like bursting grenades flashed in its depths.
In less than one minute (witnesses’ estimates of the time varied) the cloud reached the northern verge of St. Pierre and unfolded along the city’s two-mile length like a sooty blanket, blotting out everything; whatever it touched burst into flames. On the quay, thousands of barrels of rum exploded with a roar.