In the late 1890’s and early 1900’s, St. Pierre, Martinique was known as the “Paris of the West Indies”. It was renown for its red-tiled cottage, beautiful tropical plants and charming streets. Although most of the population of 20,000 were native Martiniquans, most of the wealthy were Creoles or French colonial officials. The only thing marring this paradise was the volcano looming over its picturesque streets. Citizens of the area were so use to the volcanic activity on the ‘bald mountain’, that no one took it seriously when the fresh steaming vent-holes and earth tremors stared during April 1902.
On April 23, 1902, minor explosions began at the summit of the volcano. By early May, ash began to rain down continuously, and the nauseating stench of sulfur filled the air. The homes on the mountainside were made uninhabitable. Even worse, more than 100 snakes slithered down and invaded the mulatto quarter of St Pierre. The 6-ft long serpents killed 50 people, mostly children, and many animals. There are reports of horses, pigs and dogs screaming as red ants and foot long centipedes crawled up their legs and bit them.
Things came to a head when on May 5, a landslide of boiling mud and water from the Etang Sec crater lake spilled into the River Blanche. Near the mouth of the river, 23 workman were killed in a rum distillery. This was followed by a tsunami that killed hundreds.
This naturally caused concern in the town, and many wanted to leave for Fort-de-France, Martinique’s second most important city. Unfortunately, this all coincided with a national election and public officials wanted to keep people in town to cast their ballots. They convened a committee to assess the danger, with the only scientist involved being a high school science teacher. The report they sent to Governor Louis Mouttet said “there is nothing in the activity of Mt. Pelée that warrants a departure from St. Pierre.” It concluded that “the safety of St. Pierre is completely assured.” On the assurance of that report, people from the countryside flocked into St. Pierre for safety. They could not have been more wrong.
Three days later, May 8, Mt Pelee finally exploded, sending a murderous avalanche of white-hot lava straight toward the town. Within three minutes, St Pierre was completely obliterated. There was a V shaped notched cut through the cliffs surrounding the summit crater. This acted as a gun sight pointing down at the town sending super-heated gas, ash and rock down at more than 100 miles per hour. The onslaught was enough to move a three ton statue sixteen meters from its base, and blow one meter thick masonry walls to smithereens. It continued down to the shore and hit the ships in the harbor with hurricane force, capsizing several ships killing their crews. The heat set rum warehouses and distilleries ablaze and sent rivers of flaming liquid through the streets.
Of its 30,000 population, there were only two people survived. Louis-Auguste Cyparis survived because he was in a poorly ventilated, dungeon-like jail cell. Léon Compère-Léandre lived on the edge of the city and escaped with severe burns. Havivra Da Ifrile, a young girl, reportedly escaped with injuries during the eruption by taking a small boat to a cave down shore, and was later found adrift two miles from the island, unconscious. The event marked the only major volcanic disaster in the history of France and its overseas territories.