Catastrophe (part seventeen)
Meanwhile, at government headquarters had been frequent conferences between the Secretary, the Attorney General, a few notables, and the mayor of the capital, whose incredible activity, and the profound pain to be seen on his face, spoke of unknown miseries and despair.
But the population still had no news of Saint-Pierre. They waited, expecting to learn of something that imagination made more appalling. When, at around 10 p.m., the Suchet arrived with thirty victims, the crowd massed on the Esplanade, in the alleys and neighboring streets, resisting the soldiers in their hopes of meeting some loved one to help and give comfort to, at the end of life. A mournful parade of artillery wagons delivered the dead and wounded.
Long after the final wagon had carried its burden to the hospital, the crowd lingered opposite the quays, their souls divided among varied emotions, their hearts overflowing with sadness. They asked one another if this were not a nightmare, if they were not deceived…
And in this mood of poignancy, each at last went to his bed, to rest limbs exhausted by a day’s useless vigil.
Under the Rain of Fire
Chavigny de la Chevrotière
I spoke with one of the men treated and healed of his burns. Chavigny de la Chevrotière is a youth of twenty. He has a bronzed complexion, and his scars are still fresh, making large pink patches on the backs of his hands, his arms, neck, head, and brow. As he was dressed in only a shirt, I could also see traces of burns on his shoulders and chest.
He and eleven others had been leaving by canoe, from the Prêcheur, the morning of the 8th, carrying a dispatch to Saint-Pierre. The telephone wires had fallen the day before, and the town’s inhabitants, menaced by mud flows and volcanic fumes, were begging help from the chief city.
Chavigny began his voyage at 7:30 a.m. Though the river brought mud into town, the sea was fine. A rain of ash fell; the volcano’s smoke was black. The boating party found itself about a mile offshore, passing the semaphore station to the south of the Prêcheur, when suddenly, “everything was destroyed”.
Chavigny saw a flash go from the mountain that “set the sky ablaze, then broke apart.” The direction looked to him southerly. At the same time, came an “overpowering noise”, akin to thousands of drums, or thousands of cannons.
Next was a “shower of hot dirt”, that fell over the boat, burning everyone. “Right away we’d thrown ourselves into the water and dived under. When I came up to breathe, the hot dirt fell and fell. It burned me on the head and hands. I dived again. Five times, so I would not be cooked, I had to put my head underwater. Finally, the sixth time, when I came up, the shower was finished. The seawater was all white, and a little warm at the surface.
“The sky was still dark, full of dark, rolling clouds. There were no more flashes of lightning. There was no more noise. You could not see the hills of Saint-Pierre. You could not see anything but an edge of fire along the harborfront, where the city was. The rain of mud put out the edge of fire…”
“A rain of mud?”
“Yes, I got that too. It fell on the sea, and it lashed hard. There were drops as big as cubes of sugar.”
“You stayed a long time in the water?”
“Yes, but I had no watch to tell the hour. I was very scared. I came to shore at Abymes. I was taken up by the Pouyer-Quertier. They drove me to the hospital, where I saw poor devils not as lucky as me dying, many of them. I was healed in thirteen days.”
“Now… I don’t know. They tell me there is nothing left along the Prêcheur. I stay here and wait. Why? I don’t know, I’m a victim. They feed me.”
“And in the future?”
“I don’t know anything!”
And the poor young man left, shrugging his shoulders in a gesture that signified…
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2018, translation by Stephanie Foster)