La Catastrophe de la Martinique: twenty-six
M. Clerc before the eruption and in the ruins
We return to the volcano. Here is how M. Clerc described to me the eruption of the 8th, to which he was witness from the height of the predominant hills, immediate to Saint-Pierre.
“The morning of the 8th, we were in the house, of the Litté residence, at Parnasse. At ten to eight, we heard a detonation. Not very strong. We went out to look. Then, a second detonation, very strong, that one.
“Then, I saw come out of the dry pond, a river of heavy smoke, exceedingly black. This smoke flowed, burgeoning, with a sinister noise. One felt that this was weighty, powerful. One gigantesque battering ram, rolling…I repeat the expression, rolling. We heard the creaking of all that this whirlwind was breaking, tearing, on its passage. This black mass that rushed down, did not mix itself with the smoke that continued, in clouds, to rise from the crater. One saw the horizon above the smoke which descended on Saint-Pierre.
“This followed, with a roar, the valley of the Rivière des Peres, the valley of the Roxelane, and extended itself up to Carbet, covering all with a shuddering black shroud…
“I estimate that this avalanche of a new type needed no more than a minute and a half to flow, from the height of the mountain, to the limits of Carbet. Then, quick as thought, I saw all the black mass flaring, in a clap of thunder. And still in the dark, it was upon Saint-Pierre, the flashes of incineration.
“At once, after the outburst and the explosion of the gaseous whirlwind, the summit of the mountain cleared, the crater died down, and I saw, completely changed, the old silhouette of the Lacroix hill.
“And the dark came again. Within an hour, all the region, the shoreline, the mountain, the hills, the house where we found ourselves, all were in the dark. One must light the lamps.
“And when the calm and the light returned, a light without vividness, a light lifeless, dead, we were in a country of ash. It was as though a snow, of a light grey, had covered everything.
“Saint Pierre no longer existed; the Fort district was razed, and the harborfront burned. At ten o’clock, I went down to Trois-Points, and to the alley Pecoul, that I followed up to the electric lighting works. Three men accompanied me, walking barefoot. So, the ash already was not very hot.
“Everywhere, there were blackened corpses. But the district had not been burned. The people were dead of asphyxiation. As, by a gas charged with coal-dust, which then exploding, would have blackened them all to the same hue. The district of the Fort was not burned, but crushed… there was nothing left.
“I was still below, when, between eleven and eleven-thirty, I heard an explosion that came from the other side of the Lacroix hill. A new volcanic mouth had opened itself. The former, that of the dry pond, recommenced smoking towards three o’clock. And so, we left for our house at Vivet, to take shelter from new outbursts of the volcano.”
M. Fernand Clerc returned, afterwards, many times to Saint-Pierre, he said to me. And in the calmness of the volcano, he had approached as near to it as possible. They say even—and I believe the American reporters have telegraphed this to their newspapers—that he has made the complete ascent of the volcano, that he has most closely observed the new craters, and that he has measured these…! But that, he did not say to me. When I questioned him on this proposal, as our interview took place at the Café de la Savanne, an annoyance who came up permitted M. Clerc not to answer me.
During his jaunts to the mountain, M. Fernand Clerc was able to estimate that the rupture of the Lacroix hill had diminished its altitude by 125 meters. M. Clerc also recounted for me many other interesting things. His observations on the corpses were in accord with those of other persons, and of the doctors whose interviews I publish.
So, we pass on.
A detail, however. M. Clerc thinks that many saw the danger coming, and had time to have begun fleeing. (That, moreover, does not prevent their being blindsided, by a lightning-fast asphyxiation, by a fulguration, perhaps by both simultaneously.)
Along the rue de Longchamps, he had seen corpses, as though fallen while running, then pushed, crowded by the whirlwind, which denuded, scalped them. In the rue de la Banque, he had noted that the police guards, then on duty, must have fled towards the shore; they had fallen at different distances, the sabre was at the side of charred corpses.
Near the Knight house, he had seen the roof of a ship. On this roof, there was a corpse in the attitude of a man who breakfasts; at his side remained the plate, the knife, the bottle.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2018, translation, Stephanie Foster)