Prelude To Doomsday

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Off the Mouillage, the wooden hulks of overturned vessels blazed. The Roraima ’s survivors (twenty-eight of her crew and all her passengers except a little girl and her creole nurse had been killed) were fighting fires. The Roddam had staggered away, although every man on deck when the cloud struck had been killed. Fortunately, she had had steam up, and her indomitable captain, agonizingly burned, managed to cling to the steering wheel with hands from which the flesh was peeling, and hours later brought his ship into the port of Castries, on the adjacent island of St. Lucia. Astonished port officials boarding the ash-gray, flame-seared craft found twenty-two men dead or dying.

“We come from hell,” the captain gasped.

In St. Pierre itself, only three survivors were discovered. One, a Negro about twenty-eight named Ludger Sylbaris, was a prisoner in the jail, locked in an underground dungeon without windows and ventilated only by a narrow grating in the door, which faced away from the volcano. Three days after the disaster his moaning was heard by salvage workers, who dug him out. He was frightfully burned, but gave a coherent account of his ordeal.

On the morning of May 8, he said, he was waiting for his breakfast to be brought, when suddenly it grew very dark, and hot air, mixed with fine ashes, came in through the door grating and burned him. The excruciating heat lasted only a moment, and he jumped around in agony calling for help. He heard no sound, saw no fire, smelled nothing except what he thought was his own flesh burning, and his clothing did not ignite, although his body underneath was seared so deeply that blood oozed from the wounds. During the time of intolerable heat he breathed as little as possible, he said, and when he took a drink from the cruche in the cell, the water was not hot. Sent to Morne Rouge, Sylbaris received all the care Father Mary could procure, and there recounted his experience to impartial investigators. Curiously, although his back, legs, arms, and hands were appallingly burned, his face was not touched nor his hair singed. The capricious behavior of the blast was observed in other curious manifestations.

A second survivor—at least, a man who escaped the inferno alive—was Léon Compère-Léandre, also a Negro, aged twenty-eight. He remembered that while he was sitting on the doorstep of his house on the eastern edge of the city, he suddenly felt “a terrible wind blowing. The ground began to shake, and the sky all at once became dark. I turned to go into the house, with great difficulty made the three or four steps that separated me from my room, and felt my arms and legs burning, also my body. I dropped on a table.” Perhaps an hour later he regained consciousness and saw the roof burning. In spite of his wounds, he walked or ran as far as Fond-St. Dénis, a suburb east of the city, where he found succor; but he died shortly thereafter.

The third Pierrotin who lived through the death cloud was a woman, a housemaid, who was scarcely breathing when taken from the ruins. She recalled nothing beyond feeling a sudden heat as she sat in the kitchen, and she fainted. Death ended her agony almost immediately after she was discovered.

These were the survivors. Thirty thousand perished.

The area of devastation covered about eight square miles, but the volcano focused its fury on St. Pierre, as if that had been the predetermined target. Inside this area, the annihilation of life and property was total; outside was a second, clearly defined zone where life was snuffed out, but the material damage was less; while beyond this lay a strip in which vegetation was scorched but life was spared. These zones were clearly distinguishable, and in some instances persons on one side of the dividing line were killed, while others, a short distance away, were untouched.

There were many freakish effects. Fragile or combustible objects often were not injured, although solid objects nearby were consumed or utterly fragmented. A cambric handkerchief in the hand of a woman from whose body the clothing had been ripped—scribbled notepaper—water in carafes still sweet and not evaporated—wine glasses with stems bent out of shape but their petal-thin bowls intact—a bundle of clay pipes lying unbroken on a store counter.

As for the cause, researchers generally came to the conclusion that it was superheated steam, possibly as hot as 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, mixed with lethal gases and explosive, incandescent dust. Many victims were in casual attitudes, their features calm and reposeful, indicating that death had overtaken them without warning and without pain; others were contorted in anguish. The clothing had been torn from nearly all the victims struck down out-of-doors, as would happen in the passage of a cyclone; the crumbling of walls three and four feet thick also was attributed to the velocity of the death cloud, moving faster than a hurricane. Some houses were almost pulverized; it was impossible even for persons familiar with the city to identify the foundations of many landmarks. One grim souvenir of the city’s doomsday was the clock on the shattered front wall of the military hospital, its hands frozen at 7:52.