Catastrophe (part nineteen)
Around nine in the morning, during a lightening of the clouds, M. Marie-Sainte could distinguish Mt. Pelée shrunken by a clear three hundred meters, the crest sheared off, the flanks widely cracked. Surrounded by the survivors of his crew, he was preparing, on some new-encountered wreckage, to gain a greater distance from the shore, when the wind changed abruptly from the northwest and blew southwest. The wreckage was pushed inexorably towards the flaming harborfront. He decided to abandon it, but his companions, without the stamina or courage to challenge the high seas, 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 changed again in the interval. His companions tried to rejoin him. They spotted the smoke of a steamer arriving, but all their signals to make themselves known to this ship were in vain; no doubt, they could not be seen.
And during their driftings, the growling of the volcano continued uninterrupted, the rivers overflowed, carrying a debris of trees, animals, and human beings, asphyxiated or charred, masses without form, marred beyond recognition.
Around two in the afternoon the unlucky survivors could see, a mile distant, an empty canoe. The courageous captain of the Gabrielle swam off at once, with the intention of guiding it near his companions and having them board. After a struggle of half an hour against waves, wind, and the wreckage that covered the sea; after freeing the small boat from the hot water and the lava massing there, he had the happiness of finding for his friends a means of salvation.
Near three p.m. they saw another steamer approach, one they were not long in recognizing: she was the Suchet. A whaler, with a few men and an officer on deck, passed close by them. Finally, they came alongside the Suchet, and were taken on. She approached Carbet. A rescue party of sailors landed to search for 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, visibly collapsed, threw out enormous blocks of flaming rock; the great city of Saint-Pierre, on the eve of the present day so animated, so bustling, was no longer there, reduced to a mass of burning rubble…and underneath, everywhere within a vast scope, a mass of charred corpses, gassed to death in the immense furnace.
The return to Fort-de-France was mournful. The pleas of the wounded, the despairing cries of the burned, their sad contortions, their death rattles, all formed a tableau worthy of human compassion—of which there was no lack.
The Roraima was commanded by Captain Muggha, and had sixty-eight people above decks, captain, crew, and passengers. The passengers were just at the point of disembarking onto a tender [a boat that carries passengers from a ship to a landing pier]. The agent of the Quebec Line, Joseph Plissonneau, came aboard at seven forty-five. He told Captain Muggha that since it was Ascension Day, no work would be done, and since the captain had sixty passengers wishing to be taken to Saint-Lucie, counselled him to return there, unload his cargo for that island, and come back the following day to unload for Martinique. Captain Muggha refused, deciding to stay in the port of Saint-Pierre, and disembark his ship next day.
The agent left the Roraima to board the Roddam, belonging to a line he was also agent for, and sitting at some distance in quarantine.
He had barely touched the Roddam, when the summit of the smoke-crowned mountain grew more and more agitated, thicker volleys fountained from the crater, and the smoke rose in spirals at times grey, then blue, or black.
Here is the account given of the catastrophe by M. H. Thompson, the purser.
“[I was] at panel number 2, leaning on the railing, looking with astonishment at the magnificent and terrible mountain, and many of the passengers, as well as the crew, were on deck, studying the grandeur of it. The third engineer had a camera in hand, taking a photograph. This was a few minutes before eight. All at once, a horrifying roar came, followed by a huge explosion. The noise could not be compared to anything but a thousand cannons of the largest caliber, discharged all together. And the sky was nothing but a great flame. A pause came in the roaring, with Captain Muggha rushing on deck, crying to the crew to raise 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 like a hurricane.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2018, translation, Stephanie Foster)