The Writing Traveler: The Day a Town Died
September 13, 2021
While a large congregation was attending mass, hell was let loose, and Mount Pelee hurled brimstone onto the streets and rooftops of St. Pierre.
IT WAS A PLACE of the dead.
It was a place of resurrection.
Time lay somewhere in between.
Time always heals the wounds it cannot prevent.
Photographer Gerald Crawford and I walked slowly through St. Pierre on the isle of Martinique. Great and broken columns, looking as though they had been torn from the coliseum in Rome, lay scattered alongside the narrow, humpbacked streets and twisted alleys.
They were grim reminders of 1902 when death paid a visit to a nice little town that had been called the Paris of the Lesser Island. Beyond us, its summit lost in a blue mountain haze, rose Mount Pelee, calm and undisturbed, the quiet, unassuming volcano that had held no mercy for St. Pierre.
In February of 1902, the countryside became engulfed by a strong sulfurous smell, so strong it choked birds to death while in flight.
On Wednesday, April 23, the earth shook for the first time. It was eight o’clock in the morning.
On Friday, April 25, the noise sounded like a cannon shot. The mountain rumbled. The sky was set ablaze. A shower of fine ash rained over the village of Le Precheur. The earth shook again. It was ten o’clock in the morning.
On Friday, May 2, more rumblings were heard. Residents became frightened, and the newspaper advertised a pleasant little sightseeing jaunt to the top of the mountain. It said: Those who wish to see the still gaping hole through which, these last days, broke forth the thick clouds of smoke that filled the inhabitants of the upper areas of Le Precheur and Saint-Philomene with fright will have to take advantage of this nice opportunity.
Saturday, May 3: Flames shot skyward from the crater. Ash as fine as sawdust fell. Someone sent a telegram: The eruption will probably increase in violence. The population is much upset. Shops closed. The cathedral was filled with those asking for absolution.
Monday, May 5: The White River became angry and rolled to the sea. Twenty-three died as Mount Pelee claimed its first victims. Some were curious sightseers. But still, nobody fled.
Wednesday, May 7: One communiqué said: According to exterior signs, the intensity of the eruption is decidedly declining. Many tourists have made for the crater. The governor urged everyone to stay in the city and vote in the upcoming election. A science teacher reported: In my opinion, our Mount Pelee does not endanger the town of St. Pierre more than Vesuvius endangers Naples.
Thursday, May 8: The nicest village on the island died.
At seven-fifty in the morning, while a large congregation was attending mass, hell was let loose, and Mount Pelee hurled brimstone onto the streets and rooftops of St. Pierre.
The time is certain. The clock on the Military Hospital had been stopped forever.
The temperature soared to 3,632 degrees Fahrenheit. And that burning cloud, lifting from the core of the earth, rushed madly toward the sea. It took but two minutes. Tree, rocks, and buildings were wrapped together and tossed aside.
Thirty thousand died in three minutes.
One man survived – Sylbaris, who had been sentenced to prison for assault and battery in a drunken brawl. His cell had been built far against the foot of Morne Abel. It was spared. Sylbaris had been badly burned, but he would live.
He later said, “Suddenly a tremendous noise burst out; everyone called for help, cried out, I am burning; I am dying. Five minutes later, there were no more cries, except mine.” Don’t weep for Sylbaris. He became a star, billed as the number one attraction in the Barnum Circus sideshow.
We found Rose Rasoneje Rhino standing beneath a breadfruit tree, clutching a mango fruit and smiling. For a price, anything we would like to give her, she said, she would guide us back behind the ruins of the theater to the cell of Sylbaris.
In broken English, she told me, “We all give tours to the dungeon. But I am the main guide. The others all work for me.”
Rose was in charge. No one disputed it.
The volcano may have ushered hell down the streets of St. Pierre once upon a time. But free enterprise was alive and well.
Crawford handed her a dollar.
Food would be plenty that day.
Rose became our personal guide.
Rose was eleven.