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Gates of Hell

May 31, 2015

by Greg
St. Pierre,Martinique

St. Pierre, Martinique, 1902
Picture St. Pierre it in its glory days of 1902: stone buildings, red-tiled roofs, lush tropical foliage. At 28,000 people, it was the largest city on Martinique, the largest city in the French West Indies, the largest city in the Windward Islands. It had culture, rich residents (sugar plantation owners, traders, bankers), rich visitors, famous visitors (e.g., painter Paul Gaugin). People called it the "Paris of the Caribbean" The harbor was often full of ships carrying passengers or loading sugar, rum, chocolate, tobacco, fruits, spices. About four miles north was the 4800' Mt. Pelee, a dormant volcano.

Martinique: red is Mt. Pelee, green
is St. Pierre, blue is Fort de France

Now picture this: you're in St. Pierre - as a resident, tourist, captain of a ship, whatever. Strange things begin to happen:
  • Many new sulfurous steam vents appear at the top of Mt. Pelee
  • Multiple tremors shake the town, and a rain of volcanic cinders is followed by ash clouds that cover the entire town
  • The smell of sulfur pervades all

Well, perhaps one might be accustomed to those things if living near a dormant volcano. But how about this:
  • Yellow ants and large black centipedes flee en masse from the peak, invading the lower elevations
  • Ant/centipede invasion is followed by a mass migration of snakes including the deadly Martinican pit viper.
  • A new 590' diameter boiling lake appears in the volcano crater
  • With no rain, a river swells in volume enough to carry
    trees and boulders down the mountain
  • Earthquakes, explosions, and dense black smoke began occurring every 5-6 hours.
    (At least at this point the picnic to observe the volcano was canceled.)
  • Farm animals in rural areas began dying from lack of food and water due to heavy ash penetration.
  • Pelee seems to calm for hours. Suddenly the sea recedes 330' and then rushes back, flooding the town.

It's time to go, don't you think? However, there was a close election approaching, and the local businesses did not want the politicians to jeopardize business. So the politicians tried to keep residents calm. Nothing to see here, folks. Many residents also felt that the deep valleys running down the mountain would channel any spewings
away from the town. The governor and his wife, who lived in Fort de France 20 miles to the south came to town to reassure residents that there was nothing to fear. 

Ok then, how about this:
  • Mt. Pelee's crater wall collapses, overflowing a local river with boiling mud, burying a sugar refinery and 150 people in boiling mud.
  • "Atmospheric disturbance" brings down the electric grid, plunging the city into darkness.
  • Bolts of volcanic lightning strike continually around the mountain peak in the thick, dark, volcanic ash cloud. This is creepy.

St. Pierre and Mt. Pelee, May 7th, 1902
Run, people. Seriously. It's the end of times. Some residents of the city did leave - more than could fit on the departing ships, and some attempted to flee to Fort de France to the south. The governor felt that this was not appropriate and deployed troops to keep people from fleeing. A cargo captain decided to haul anchor and leave. He faced vigorous protests from sugar merchants, refusal of the port authorities to clear him out, and threats of arrest, but leave he did. He was the smart one of course. Many residents from the surrounding area fled to the town for safety, swelling its population to around 30,000.

The eruption of May 8, 1902.
A little before 8:00 AM on May 8, 1902, Mt. Pelee blew. The SW side of the cone glowed red and then exploded horizontally, sending a blast cloud hugging the ground towards St. Pierre at over 400 mph. If you were in St. Pierre when you saw this, it was too late for you. This cloud - swift, dense, black, glowing red inside - must have looked incredibly evil. The force of the blast leveled most buildings. The cloud's temperature was almost 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. Many residents were found swollen and burned to death even though their clothes were intact. Those residents it didn't kill instantly with impact or heat were killed by lack of oxygen or poison gases.  St. Pierre burned for days.
The cell that saved
Cyparis' life. Theres a
high cliff behind it, which
put the cell in a "shadow"
of the blast

Out of the 30,000 people in St. Pierre, there were only two known survivors. One,  Louis-Auguste Cyparis, was a prisoner in a stone cell, which offered him a great protection from blast and heat. By virtue of his survival, he was pardoned and became world-famous touring with Ringling Brothers' Circus. It is not known how the other man survived.

The eruption of Mt. Pelee acquainted scientists with a volcanic phenomenon they called a Nuee Ardente, which though literally means a "glowing cloud", came to mean a flow of very hot gases mixed with small particles and large chunks that is fluid enough to flow over ground effects as happened with Mt. Pelee. This eruption was the first Nuee Ardente on record. 

Over twenty ships were destroyed in the harbor in this eruption. One ship, the Rodham, escaped even though most of the crew was dying or dead. When the ship arrived in St. Lucia, stunned customs officials asked them where it had come from. "From the gates of hell" was the captain's response.

This cathedral had only a few good years; it was completed in 1899.

Ruins of the theater. Photo taken from on stage,looking out onto main seating level with entry (arches) behind.
There was also balcony seating above main and box seat along each side. 

St. Pierre in 1902 before the eruption.

St. Pierre in 1902 after the eruption.