Catastrophe (part forty-four)
On the 18th, an event more powerful, with detonations at the mountain’s summit, and the village ground quaking. They collected ash and sent this to Fort-de-France, where it was analyzed by M. Mirville. They warned the governor that an eruption, one signaling its gravity, had begun.
While M. le Dr. Saint-Maurice leafed through his notebook, to give me the exact foretelling dates, M. Muller, former cabinet chief of M. Mouttet, added:
“Yes, it was a dispatch from M. Sully, to advise the governor. And M. Mouttet seemed very annoyed. Good, he said, a volcano to liven things up, as if we don’t have enough with the elections. There is a volcano that would do well to wait.
“This did not prevent M. Mouttet from convening the ‘scientific personalities’ of Fort-de-France, the chief of the sanitation service, the doctors, the artillerymen, etc., etc., and asking their counsel. Everyone concluded that it would not wait.”
Another passenger who joined our conversation, Dr. Lherminier, said: “The artillerymen above all could not, did not, want to suppose the volcano could become dangerous. Among others, a captain, M. de Kerraoul, who had possessed himself of the topography, and ‘had an ear’ for volcanoes, claimed that Mount Pelée had never bothered anyone. When the Guérin factory was destroyed, he said, ‘It’s curious. It’s against all theory. But that’s all the volcano can do.’
“Then, on the afternoon of the 8th, when I learned that Saint-Pierre was destroyed, and I informed him, he answered me: ‘It’s not possible. It’s a bad joke. It is not true.’ And now that he knows what’s true, he says, ‘Inconceivable. Extraordinary.’”
But, returning to Dr. Saint-Maurice, and his observations:
“Towards the end of April, we could smell sulphur, and there was ash in the air. I was at Saint-Pierre at the beginning of May. The night of the 2nd to the 3rd seemed to me especially worrisome. At 2:00 in the morning, I went out to the boulevard, where I saw ashes coming down from the summit. There was a constant shaking and random intervals between explosions. Lightning zigzagged on the flank of the mountain. At the crater, like will-o-the-wisps, were tiny flames repeating again and again, quickly, until they converged into one great flame that lasted a minute or two.
“Next came the smoke, and the mountain stayed covered.
“But many people would not hear anything, see anything, understand anything. Even after the Guérin factory was destroyed, the reassurances of the mayor made more than one person believe the lava would always take the valley of the Rivière-Blanche. They didn’t consider that the valleys of the Rivière des Pères and the Roxelane also started on the flank of Mount Pelée. Me, I thought of it. I said it. I left Saint-Pierre. It isn’t courage to fight a volcano, it’s folly! And how much they were fooled! And what sorrow of my own, when I explored the ruins, the day after, the smoking tomb of my fellow citizens, my friends, my parents…!
“The mayor of Fort-de-France, M. Sévère, asked me to study the best conditions for burying or burning the corpses. For that purpose, I went to Saint-Pierre several times.”
I was conscious, in discussion with Dr. Saint-Maurice, who, when he speaks of corpses, speaks of the bodies of his parents, that these interviews offered some cruelty, that they revived painful memories in the poor man’s heart… But he had been witness, and he witnessed well. He is one of those whose testimony, made in faith, gives faith.
And here is the page where I noted his words:
“All the corpses were in place when I went to Saint-Pierre on the 10th. None had been touched. There were still, I estimate, three thousand in the streets. We saw but rarely, exceptionally, anyone in a house. Those were covered by rubble. Those in the street presented, nearly all…forgive me the medical term…the same ‘exterior habit’, black from carbonization, and also a sort of black coating, studding them in parts spared by the flames. Naked. Scalped. The limbs flexed. Some with the intestines out, and also, many, herniation of the thigh muscles. The rigidity of the organs was not the case with all. It seemed to me also that the signs of asphyxiation, the tongue out, etc., did not mark themselves clearly in every case, due, perhaps, to the fire that came after. Many of the corpses had the extremities curtailed, mostly the hands and feet.
“The attitude of all the corpses showed the people of Saint-Pierre were surprised by death, that they had been killed instantaneously…”
Dr. Saint-Maurice collects himself in a moment, searches in his memory, and adds:
“One can believe, however, that nature wants to hamper our judgments, punish our search for the truth. We defend general assertions, yet beside innumerable facts, from which we derive the absolute rule that pleases our minds…eager for simple causes, for clarity, for the one cause…she places a sign that disarrays all the others…
All the others, and is enough to plunge our minds into tangles…
“The general rule, that comes from the observation of 2900-plus, out of 3000 seen, is that asphyxiation or stupefaction, or both at once, brought death like lightning, and the fire came after. Death came without struggle. But against this quasi-unanimity are evidences…that I’ve seen.
“On the doorstep of a house, the corpse of a man. His chest emerged from the rubble, head raised, neck arched. Palms against the ground, arms clenched, stiff. An attitude of struggle against being crushed. Fallen on her back, a woman, naked, but very little carbonized, barely licked by flame, only blackened. She showed no sign of asphyxiation. She had a hand on her chest over the heart, fingers at her breast, tearing the flesh. The other hand was flexed on an arm that seemed to shield her face. An attitude of fighting against the flames.
“I saw the corpse of a man in a shirt. The shirt was intact, not burned, only dirty, spotted with mud and ash, but the cloth was whole. Under the shirt, inside the shirt, the man was burned, carbonized…
“I saw the corpse of a man who had fine boots. It was by this detail, of the unmarred boots, that we recognized him as one of our friends. We were before his house…he had always taken pride in his shoes.
“The boots were intact. We removed them. They came away with the soles of the feet…cooked.
“I saw bodies completely carbonized beside thin boards still intact. At the administration buildings, the largest of which had disappeared, I saw a few pieces of planking. In a ruined store, I saw a package of eyeglasses, brand new. In the Caminade house, next to melted iron columns, I saw two large books without damage…
Dr. Saint-Maurice also recounted the horror of bodies coming to pieces when piled for burning. “The workers gathered them with shovels.” One does not insist on this scene, a type of reporting I find inappropriate. But I’ve seen them myself, these doleful pieces. I saw the explosion had separated them, the head, the spine, the limbs; far one from another, on the Savane. At the foot of torn trees.
And I note a forgotten detail of my walk through the ruins. All this debris of trees, all the pieces, were molded with a sort of red powder, of clear vermillion, to a very tragic effect. In the white, the grey and black of the ruins, it was like a dew, like a rain of blood. I brought away a few pieces. I had packed a little case with them, and the pebbles and ash of the volcano.
In the jostle of departure from Fort-de-France, the little case disappeared. If these lines fall under the eyes of those who have “saved” said little case, I will be much obliged if you return it to me. The red mold on the trees did not exist the day after the catastrophe, as it didn’t catch the eye of Dr. Saint-Maurice.
Another detail he told me at the end of the interview. They found only one corpse of a cat in the streets of Saint-Pierre.
And this again: On the plaza of the Mouillage, among great slabs of stone, was a block measuring nearly three meters square—of a material whose nature was unknown to him. Hard, with the consistency and aspect of a cake of melted sulphur, yellowish-grey in color. Cracked and raised, blistered in places, a hole at the top of each blister. Dr. Saint-Maurice had a piece cut with a pickaxe, and reported the discovery to Fort-de-France, asking that M. Sévère send it to the hospital laboratory for analysis.
It was given to the government. And I believe M. Lheurre has made himself a paperweight.
A 1936 article (click for link) on the state of volcanology near the brink of WWII. Although the world had long been fascinated by Pompeii, it was the disaster in Martinique that woke science to the threat of the nuée ardente, or pyroclastic flow.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2019, translation, Stephanie Foster)