La Catastrophe de la Martinique: forty-three
“The differences in burns could be explained by the explosive action of burning, of fire, on the muscles. Under this action, the most powerful are contracted, which puts the limbs in flexion; the weakest have been by force extended, and the most exposed are burned more than the others. This mechanism explains the situation of the bodies, nearly all of them, observed with the limbs flexed, the chest expanded, the head back, the neck arched.
“This action of the fire bends the knees, the wrists…I saw the bones of the forearms pointing, curling at the wrists, the flexed hands.
“The death of all was instantaneous. The bodies were frozen, acts in progress fixed at the moment of stupefaction, or if you prefer, of general asphyxiation. I saw the body of a man, in a squat…it was his hour. And the pose in which he was surprised by fate shows very well he had not guessed this to be the hour of his death. People, it was said, fled, seeing the danger to come. There is that. Others, though, were found in different, but no less significant attitudes.
“This is not to say there were none panicked, in terror, in flight. At a morning hour when recurrences of eruption had preceded the volcano’s final catastrophe, this must produce panics comparable to those we saw at Fort-de-France. The mass of bodies of women in the Longchamps quarter proves it.
“I have seen elsewhere groups of bodies, killed in an ultimate embrace, people who seemed to have wanted to die together, holding tightly. On the threshold of a house, there was the corpse of a woman, who had in her arms the little corpse of a child; the whirlwind of destruction, the torrent of fire, the explosion of the cataclysm had denuded, burned both bodies, had torn away the clothing and the hair…but she had never loosened this embrace…and in death this poor mother held forever her child, mouth to mouth.
“But,” (went on Dr. Lherminier) “it is not these sentimental observations that you ask of me, and I will not describe here all the groups I have seen of this type…of families…you can imagine such scenes in a city where are found thirty thousand people, people who had been reassured, people for whom it was judged they need not flee any danger…all this city killed surprised in the fullness of life…
“For some, the most nervous, for some women, certainly, the agony was long… It had begun three days since. It was nevertheless death in an unexpected blow. I saw the corpse of a man killed standing, in an attitude of walking, a leg in the air. He remained standing. A wall had stopped him falling. The arms were out in front. One hand held an iron can. He was asphyxiated, stupefied, carbonized, standing.
“One singularity of note, and of a nature to test the wisdom of those who work at things improbable… At the Caminade house, iron bars, one-and-a-half-centimeters diameter, were melted. This supposes a temperature no less than 1800 degrees. Now, next to this were corpses carbonized very superficially.
“And this. In the quarter of the fort where the explosion was particularly violent, since all who were on the hill were swept, cut down, carried by the wind, and they have not retrieved any bodies, even from the flank of the hill where a few sections of wall were left… In this destruction which seemed to have volatized all, in a place where had been the barracks of the gendarmerie, were some singed and blackened remains of horses.
“We have a few logical explanations of the cataclysm. We know beyond doubt some of these effects. But I believe there is a great complexity of actions of diverse natures.
“Some, though, were planned. An article in Le Temps, published the 7th, in Paris, and that we had not received until the 26th at Fort-de-France, indicated this.”
It is most regrettable (this is no longer M. Lherminier who speaks), that the minister of the colonies had not read this article soon enough to be convinced of the danger there was in maintaining the population at Saint-Pierre, the need for telegraphing M. Mouttet to proceed with the evacuation of the city whose destruction seemed fated to the editor of the article in question…and who seems to have been competent.
The Observations of Doctor Saint-Maurice
Dr. Saint-Maurice practices medicine at the Prêcheur. His family lived in Saint-Pierre. He has lost them. When Prêcheur was evacuated, the first time, he went to Saint-Pierre, to the house of his father. For all that he was not a “specialist” in volcanoes, what the doctor saw, studied, understood, urged him to not remain in this menaced city, and at the mercy of a phenomenon more violent that could come to them from one moment to another. He left the city. And he wanted his father to do the same.
“Take my example!” he had said to the unlucky old man.
Dr. Saint-Maurice returned to France at the same time as myself, aboard the Canada. We have had long conversations on the catastrophe. And all he has told me confirms what I’ve had from many other witnesses…that warnings had long been given by the mountain.
Dr. Saint-Maurice pegs these warnings to the first days of March. He had clearly sensed at the Prêcheur the sulphurous odors that came from Mount Pelée.
The fourth of April, the odors that had strengthened all through the month of March, took on a great intensity, and were accompanied by the first rain of ash that fell on the Prêcheur. A small rain.
A view of Saint-Pierre in 1929, sparsely rebuilt, from Le Courrier colonial illustré, 10 November, of that year.
A brief death notice for Jean Hess, from 26 September 1926, in the newspaper Le Temps.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2019, translation, Stephanie Foster)