Catastrophe (part forty-three)
“The differences in burns are explained by the explosive action of fire on the muscles. The most powerful are contracted, which puts the limbs in flexion; the weakest are by force extended; the most exposed are burned more than the others. This mechanism explains the positioning of the bodies, nearly all, with the limbs flexed, the chest expanded, the head back, the neck arched.
“The fire’s action bends the knees and wrists… I saw the bones of the forearms jutting, the hands curled at the wrists, the fingers clenched.
“The death of everyone was instantaneous. The bodies were frozen, acts in progress fixed at the moment of stupefaction, or if you prefer, 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 hadn’t guessed this to be the hour of his death. People fled, they say, seeing the danger to come. There is that. Others, though, were found in different, no less significant attitudes.
“Not to say none were panicked, found in flight. At a morning hour when recurring eruptions preceded the volcano’s final catastrophe, this must have produced panics comparable to those we saw at Fort-de-France. The mass of bodies, women, in the Longchamps quarter proves it.
“I have seen elsewhere groups of bodies, killed in an ultimate embrace, people who seemed to have wished to die together, holding tightly. On the threshold of a house was the corpse of a woman, and in her arms the little corpse of a child. The cataclysm of fire had denuded and burned both bodies, torn away the clothing and the hair, but she had never loosened this embrace…and in death this poor mother held her child forever, mouth to mouth.
“But,” [went on Dr. Lherminier] “it is not these sentimental observations that you ask, and I will not describe all the groups I’ve seen of this type, of families. You can imagine such scenes in a city of thirty thousand people, people who had been reassured; people for whom it was judged they were not in danger. All this city’s dead surprised in the fullness of life…
“For some, the most nervous…for some women, certainly, the agony was long. It had begun three days before. Death was still an unexpected blow. I saw the corpse of a man killed standing, in an attitude of walking, a leg in the air. A wall had stopped him falling. The arms were held in front, one hand with an iron can. He was asphyxiated, carbonized, standing.
“One singularity of note, to test the wisdom of those who study the improbable… At the Caminade house, iron bars, one-and-a-half-centimeters thick, were melted. That supposes a temperature of no less than 1800 degrees. Now, next to this were corpses carbonized very superficially. Explain that… And this. In the Fort District, where the explosion was especially violent, and everyone on the hill carried off by the wind, they have not retrieved any bodies, even from the hillside where a few sections of wall were left…
“In this destruction, which seems to have volatized everything where the police barracks were, were singed and blackened remains of horses. We have a few logical explanations for the volcano. We know beyond doubt some of its effects. But I believe there is a great complexity of actions, of diverse natures. Some, though, were foreseeable. An article in Le Temps, published the 7th, in Paris, which we did not receive until the 26th at Fort-de-France, discussed this.”
It is most regrettable, [this is no longer M. Lherminier speaking] that the minister of the colonies hadn’t read this article soon enough, to be convinced of the danger to Saint-Pierre, the need for telegraphing M. Mouttet to evacuate the city whose destruction seemed fated to the article’s editor…
Who seems to know his job.
The Observations of Doctor Saint-Maurice
Dr. Saint-Maurice practices medicine at the Prêcheur. His family had lived in Saint-Pierre. He has lost them. When the Prêcheur was evacuated the first time, he went to Saint-Pierre, to his father’s house. For all that he was not a “specialist” in volcanoes, what the doctor saw, watched, and understood, urged him to not remain under this threat, at the mercy of a more violent event, that might come at any moment.
He left the city. He had wanted his father to do the same. “Take my example!” he’d said to the unlucky old man.
Dr. Saint-Maurice returned to France with me aboard the Canada. We had long conversations on the catastrophe. And everything he told me confirms what I’ve heard from many other witnesses…that the mountain had long given warnings.
Dr. Saint-Maurice pegs these warnings to the first days of March. He had sensed the sulphurous odors at the Prêcheur came from Mount Pelée. On the fourth of April, the odors (which had strengthened through March) intensified greatly, accompanied by the first rain of ash falling 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)