Prelude To Doomsday

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The ships in the roadstead were anchored broadside to the onrushing cloud and received its full impact; most capsized and sank, their hulls afire. Only the Roraima and the Roddam remained afloat, but the masts, funnel, and boats of the Roraima were carried away, and half a dozen fires broke out on her deck. The Roddam heeled until water poured over the lee rail; then her anchor chain snapped, and she slowly righted, scorched and on fire fore and aft.

Eight miles offshore, the cable ship Pouyer-Quertier felt the heat, and red-hot stones and ashes rattled on her deck; with difficulty the fearful crew headed the vessel out to sea.

Two minutes after Pelée had vomited its destroying cloud, St. Pierre was a vast brazier of fire, obscured under an impenetrable pall of smoke and dust.

A witness who observed the cataclysm from the land side was Roger Arnoux, a trained scientist, member of the French Astronomical Society. He had left the city the evening before to spend the night at his country house on Morne Parnasse, a high hill two miles east of St. Pierre. After many restless hours, he was standing in the garden watching Pelée’s pyrotechnics when he saw two vapor clouds issue from the mountain, one vertically to a height of at least seven miles, the other laterally toward St. Pierre, lying directly in its path. To him the clouds looked violet-gray, and he noted the innumerable scintillations in their dark masses. Almost at the instant of their ejection, he was stunned by an intolerably loud crash, a grinding sound (as another witness put it, “like all the machinery in the world breaking down at once”). The time consumed in the passage of the death cloud from the volcano to the sea, a distance of roughly five miles, Arnoux computed at not more than three seconds.

The report he submitted subsequently to the Astronomical Society in Paris contained the personal comment: “I had at this time the impression that St. Pierre had been destroyed, and I wept over the loss of those whom I had left the night before.” Among these victims were his father, mother, brother, and sister. His bereavement was no greater than that suffered by thousands; families were decimated, and hardly a person on the island but was affected by the death of friends or relatives.

Immediately after the passage of the dark cloud, Arnoux reported, a gale-like wind rushed incontinently from the south, blowing toward the volcano, as though the convulsion had created a vacuum around the mountain; the wind was so violent it stripped leaves and branches from trees and flattened shrubbery. This was succeeded by a downpour of rain mixed with ashes, forming a mud paste that adhered to everything. This fetid deluge lasted half an hour. The sun had been effaced by the umbrella cloud overhead; not until an hour later did it glimmer forth feebly over a ghastly landscape.

From his presbytery in Morne Rouge, overlooking St. Pierre, Father Mary also saw the destroying cloud on its lethal path. He beheld the black vapor leap from the side of the mountain and in a few instants fall upon the city; to him, looking down on its upper surface, it appeared like a heaving, rolling plain of plowed earth—”as if all Martinique were sliding into the sea.”

The full horror of the catastrophe remained unknown to the rest of the island for several hours. The coastal ferry twice started on its regular run from Fort-de-France, and both times turned back before approaching St. Pierre. Government officials were stupefied; no word came from the governor; every attempt to communicate with the north proved futile.

The machinery of government was paralyzed. No one knew who had authority or what to do. Was the whole island about to be blasted into oblivion? There was no provision for such a catastrophe; civil authority was for the time being demoralized.

Finally, toward noon, the acting governor sent the Suchet to investigate, and the warship arrived off the burning town at about half past twelve. Examination through powerful glasses revealed no living soul. The fierce heat beat back landing parties until nearly three o’clock, when the captain came ashore on the Place Bertin, the tree-shaded square with gay cafés near the center of town. Not a tree was standing; the denuded trunks, scorched and bare, lay prone, torn out by the roots. The ground was littered with dead. In the center of the square the twisted tritons of the fountain were still spouting cool, clear water, and the members of the landing party refreshed themselves with a drink. But fire and a suffocating stench prevented any deeper exploration of the burning ruins.

Meanwhile, a number of survivors had been plucked from the sea by small boats; they were sailors who had been blown into the water by the impact of the blast, and who had clung to wreckage for hours. All were frightfully burned. In the village of Carbet, shielded from the fiery cloud by a high promontory at the southern end of the city, were more victims from the fringe of the holocaust, also horribly burned; few of these lived longer than a few hours.