La Catastrophe de la Martinique: nineteen
Towards nine in the morning, during a lightening of cover, M. Marie-Sainte could clearly distinguish Mt. Pelée reduced by at least three hundred meters, the crest sheared off, the flanks widely cracked. Surrounded by the survivors of his former crew, he was preparing, on some wreckage newly encountered, to gain a greater distance from the shore…when the wind, blowing until then from the northwest, changed abruptly and blew southwest. This wreckage was inexorably pushed towards the flaming harborfront. He took a decision to abandon it, but his companions, having not the stamina nor the courage to challenge the high seas, themselves clung on. Alone, confident of his will and the strength of his arms, the second captain of the Gabrielle stayed above water for more than two hours.
The wind again had changed in the interval. His companions tried to rejoin him. Soon, they could see the smoke of a steamer coming up. All their signals to make themselves known to this ship were in vain…no doubt, they could not be seen.
And during all these driftings, on land the growling of the volcano continued without interruption; the rivers overflowed, carrying debris of every sort, trees, animals, and human beings, asphyxiated or charred, masses without form, marred past recognition.
Towards two in the afternoon, the unlucky victims could see, a mile distant, an empty canoe. The courageous captain of the Gabrielle flung himself, swimming, with the intention of guiding it near his companions of misfortune and having them board. After a tenacious effort, after a struggle of half an hour against the waves, the wind and wreckage that covered the sea, the small boat freed of hot water and the lava massing there, he at last had the happiness of seeing all his companions now possessed of a means of salvation.
It was around three p.m., when they discovered, coming in their direction, another steamer they were not long in recognizing: she was the Suchet. A whaler, standing on which were a few men and an officer, passed near to them. Finally, they came to the vessel, where they were received. She approached Carbet. A squad of sailors landed to rescue victims. Alas! These were hardly more than effigies, men, women, children, burned, maimed, dying—of whom a great number expired while being carried aboard, or during the crossing.
As the Suchet departed, the mountain, quite visibly sunken, vomited again enormous blocks of lava, aflame; the great city of Saint-Pierre, on the eve of the present day so animated, so bustling…no longer there, only a mass of burning rubble. And underneath, everywhere within a vast scope, one of charred corpses, asphyxiated by the immense furnace.
The return to Fort-de-France was mournful. The pleas of the wounded, the cries of despair of the burned, their sad contortions, death rattles…all this formed a lamentable tableau, worthy to excite human pity, of which there was no lack.
The Roraima was commanded by Captain Muggha, and had sixty-eight people above-decks: captain, crew, and passengers, taken in all. The passengers were just at the point of disembarking onto a tender alongside. The agent of the Quebec Line, M. Joseph Plissonneau, came aboard at seven forty-five. He told Captain Muggha that, since it was the day of the Ascension, there would be no work. As he had on board sixty passengers who were desirous of being taken to Saint-Lucie, he counselled him to return, there to unload his cargo for that island, and then to come back next day, to unload that of Martinique. Captain Muggha refused, deciding to stay in the port of Saint-Pierre until the next day for his disembarkation.
The agent left the Roraima to go on board the Roddam, belonging to a line for whom he was also agent, and who sat at some distance, in quarantine.
The agent had barely touched the Roddam, when the summit of the mountain, crowned in fumes, became more and more agitated, thicker volleys of smoke fountaining from the breast of the crater; smoke rising in spirals sometimes grey, sometimes blue, sometimes black.
Here is the account given of the catastrophe by M. H. Thompson, the deputy commissioner. He said that he was:
“…at panel number 2, leaning on the railing, looking with astonishment at the magnificent and terrible appearance of the mountain, and many of the passengers, as well as the crew, were on deck, contemplating the grandeur of the phenomenon. The third engineer, camera in his hands, was taking a photograph of the smoking mountain. This was a few minutes before eight.
“All at once, a horrifying roar made itself heard, followed by a powerful explosion. The noise could not be compared to anything but a thousand cannons of the largest caliber, discharged together. And the sky was nothing but a great flame.
“A momentary pause in the growling, and Captain Muggha rushed on deck, crying to the crew to raise the anchor. But it was too late. A whirlwind of steam fell on all the ships, and an avalanche of fire swept the city and the shore with the violence of a hurricane.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2018, translation, Stephanie Foster)