Catastrophe (part 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, which he witnessed from the height of the overlooking hills, nearest 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 outside to look. There was a second detonation…very strong, that one.
“Then I saw a river of heavy smoke come out of the dry lake, exceedingly black. It flowed and burgeoned, with a sinister noise. I sensed that it had weight and power. A gigantic battering ram, rolling… I repeat the word, rolling. We heard the creaking of everything this maelstrom was breaking and rending in its passage. The mass rushed down, did not mix itself with the smoke that continued, in clouds, to rise from the crater. We could see the horizon above the smoke falling on Saint-Pierre.
“It followed the valley of the Rivière des Peres, the valley of the Roxelane, and extended itself to Carbet, making a roar, covering everything with a shuddering black shroud. I would estimate that in a minute and a half this new sort of avalanche had flowed from the top of the mountain to the limits of Carbet. Then, quick as thought, in a clap of thunder, I saw all of the black mass flare up. The darkness was upon Saint-Pierre, and the flashes of burning.
“Suddenly, after the eruption and the explosion of the gaseous whirlwind, the summit of the mountain cleared, the crater extinguished itself, and I saw the old silhouette of the Lacroix hill completely changed. The darkness came again. Within an hour, all the region, the shoreline, the mountain, the hills, the house where we found ourselves, were in the dark. We had to light the lamps.
“When the calm and the light returned, a dull, lifeless light, we were in a country of ash. It was as though a light grey snow covered everything.
“Saint Pierre no longer existed. The Fort district was razed, and the harborfront was in flames. At ten o’clock, I went down to Trois-Points, and to the lane called Pecoul, that I followed up to the electric lighting works. Three men were with me, walking barefoot. So the ash was already not very hot.
“Everywhere there were blackened corpses. Yet the district had not been burned. The people were dead of asphyxiation. As though by a gas charged with coal-dust that, exploding, would have blackened them all to the same hue. The Fort district 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 vent had opened itself. The first, that of the dry lake, began smoking again towards three o’clock. And so we left for our house at Vivet, to take shelter from the new eruptions.”
M. Fernand Clerc returned, afterwards, many times to Saint-Pierre, he said to me. When the volcano was calm, he had approached as near 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 all 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, a busybody turned up, and 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 a number of interesting things. His observations on the corpses were in accord with those of other persons, and of the doctors whose interviews I’ve published.
So, we pass on.
A detail, however. M. Clerc thinks that many saw the danger coming, and had time to have begun fleeing. (That does not prevent their being blindsided by a lightning-fast asphyxiation, an electric current, perhaps by both simultaneously.)
Along the rue de Longchamps he saw corpses fallen, as though while running, then crowded by the whirlwind—which had denuded and scalped them. In the rue de la Banque, he noted that the police guards on duty must have fled towards the shore. They had fallen at different distances; sabers were at the sides of the charred corpses.
Near the Knight establishment, he saw the top of a ship. A corpse was there in the attitude of a man who breakfasts, beside him remained the plate, the knife, the bottle.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2018, translation, Stephanie Foster)