On May 8th, 1902, Martinique’s Mont Pelée volcano erupted with swift and startling violence, sending a pyroclastic cloud hurtling towards the harbor town of St. Pierre. Within minutes, the Caribbean’s most important cultural and commercial center was incinerated and its 29,000 inhabitants lay dead. So dramatic was this event that the mountain gave its name to a specific kind of volcanic eruption—the Pelean-type—associated with explosive outbursts that generate dense mixtures of hot volcanic fragments and gas. The fluidized slurries produced by eruptions such as that of Mont Pelée in 1902 send glowing avalanches (nuées ardentes) and ash flows (also known as pyroclastic flows) pouring down valleys and slopes at speeds exceeding 60 miles per hour. Given the short distance between the volcano and the town, St. Pierre received the full strength of the blast. Within seconds the city exploded. Captain Freeman, whose ship, the Roddam, was anchored at the bay, described it thus:
“There came a sudden roar that shook the earth and the sea. The mountain uplifted, blew out, was rent in twain from top to bottom. From the vast chasm there belched up high into the sky a column of flashing flame, and a great black pillar of cloud. That was all—just the one big roar of the shattering explosion, one flare, and then the cloud, shooting out from the rent, rushing down mountain-side on to the doomed city. It came down like a tornado, destroying everything as it passed, spreading out fan-wise as it neared the bottom—clearing the lower hills, it sprang upon St. Pierre, where the people were hurrying to mass, enveloping every street in darkness and in dust, in an instant—and then sweeping, leaping on down upon the shipping in the harbour, it rushed straight for the Roddam—a devouring tornado of fire from the bowels of the mountain.”
The news of the devastation of the city spread almost as quickly as the nuée ardente that precipitated its destruction. The three contingents of reporters working the region—Caribbean-based French journalists, American correspondents based in Puerto Rico and Cuba, and Anglophone writers (both Creole and British) working for various local English-language newspapers and reporting for the major British dailies—descended on the island within days of the catastrophe, producing an avalanche of reports and “human-interest” stories that dominated headlines for weeks after the eruption. Reports on the destruction of St. Pierre were accompanied—as a sort of coda—by news on the eruption of the Soufrière volcano in neighboring St. Vincent, which had coincided with that of Mont Pelée and had devastated the entire northern half of that island. Because of the availability of under-water cables linking the islands to the world, the tragedy of Mont Pelée became the first natural disaster to be chronicled almost obsessively in the press.
Commemorations of the day in St. Pierre include a religious service to begin at 8:02 in the morning—the time of the eruption—and a community hike to the top of the volcano.