La Catastrophe de la Martinique: thirteen
Those Who Have Seen
How was the destruction at Saint-Pierre accomplished? By what force were they thrown to earth, set afire, these ruins through which, in so sorrowful a promenade, I have led you?
I have seen the volcano hurl clouds of black smoke at night, alight with fire. I have seen the crater kindle itself and glow. I have seen the descent of lava flows, torrents of smoking, vaporing mud. I have seen the volcano spit ashes, and received the rain of them.
But all this cannot suffice to explain the crushing of a city and the death of forty thousand persons, then living there.
To understand this destructive phenomenon, it is necessary to question those who had seen the 8th, and those who could have studied the immediate aftermath…
This I have done. Eyewitnesses. But, let us pause on this word, “eyewitnesses”…this does not mean witnesses found in Saint-Pierre at the moment of the catastrophe. Of that type, there are none. All who were alive in Saint-Pierre on the 8th of May, at 7:50 in the morning, died before the ticking on to 7:50 and one-half minutes…absolutely all.
The eyewitnesses were those who were found at the limit of the destructive phenomenon, at sea or on land; of whom some had been grievously burned—and most of these died, after a more or less lengthy agony.
Among all those I’ve listened to, here are the most interesting:
Conversation with M. le docteur Guérin
Eruption of the 5th
Dr. Guérin is an old man of seventy-two years. In type, he is the accomplished white creole of the Antilles. Very robust, spry, and let us say the word, very young despite his great age.
He was embarking at Pointe-à-Pitre, aboard the Saint-Domingue, where I had taken passage. He had, after the catastrophe, conducted his family to Guadaloupe, and returned to Martinique to occupy himself with what he had left behind. Not many things…the volcano had from him before, so to speak, taken all…
It was with him the volcano had begun, in destroying his factory, which was located 2 kilometers north of Saint-Pierre, on the ocean side, at the mouth of the Rivière-Blanche.
Guérin told me all he knew; all he’d seen. I will let him speak:
“Mt. Pélee began to make her noise around the 25th of April. The 28th, the manager of my house made the ascent, with a few other persons, of whom a young Parisian, M. Mervardt, I believe, perished afterwards in the catastrophe. He found L’Etang-Sec filled with water. The water was hot in certain places, cold others. It overflowed on the factory side, into the Rivière-Blanche. The river, which in ordinary times had little water, had tripled in volume. It was drinkable, tepid.
“Thursday, I left. Friday, my son telephoned me to say there was no more water in the Rivière-Blanche, but only mud. The mountain smoked. The ashes fell. Saturday, the hands, taken with fear, refused to work. The ashes fell that day as far as Fort-de-France.
“That Monday morning, they telephoned me that the factory was in danger. In the night, there had been an inundation of black mud, that overflowed defenses built for protecting the factory against the Rivière-Blanche. This mudslide stopped itself at four o’clock. At 9:30, the mountain was equally calm. More than five hundred of the curious came to eye this phenomenon, which began to worry me, as well as all those present.
“I wanted immediately to bring away my family and the factory personnel. I could not go until noon. I decided it would need two hours, and ordered my yacht put under steam at the factory port. At ten o’clock, I heard cries. They gave the alarm. The people flung themselves past my chalet, situated above the factory, people who clamored, frightened: “The mountain is coming down!”
“And I heard a noise which I can compare to nothing. An immense noise, what…? The devil on earth. And I went outdoors…I looked at the scene. It was coming down, under white smoke, crashing, an avalanche of black matter, an enormous mass more than ten meters high, at least a hundred-fifty meters wide. This mass goes along the bed of the Rivière-Blanche, rolls against the factory…an army of gigantic rams…
“Stupor nails me in place. I cannot move. All my life is before my eyes. My unfortunate son and his unhappy wife ran towards the shore. I saw them disappear behind the factory… As soon as it arrived, passing ten meters from me…I felt the deadly wind….at once came the mud… It was earth-splitting. All is broken, drowned, buried…my son, his wife, thirty people…the large buildings are carried away on the waves of the avalanche…
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; translation Stephanie Foster, 2018)