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by Bob Brooke


St. Pierre, MartiniqueFor the past hour, Leon Compere had been repairing shoes in his home workshop in Saint Pierre, Martinique. Sylbaris, a black man serving time in the town prison for assault and battery, was just finishing his meager breakfast. Neither man could have known that within minutes their lives were about to change forever. It was 7:45 a.m. on Thursday, May 8, 1902.

Saint Pierre, known as the "Paris of the West Indies," lay clean and pristine after an overnight thunderstorm. It was all stone-built and stone-paved, with narrow streets, wooden or zinc awnings, and peaked roofs of red tile, pierced by gabled dormers. Most of the buildings were painted in a clear yellow tone, contrasting with the burning blue ribbon of the tropical sky. No street was absolutely level. Nearly all of them climbed the hills, descended into hollows, curved and twisted in sudden angles.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Saint Pierre was, by far, the most modern town in the Antilles, equipped with electricity, two transatlantic cables, the telephone, plus a tramway connecting its center to its western suburb.

Such was Saint Pierre when the volcano, Mount Pelee, awoke.

Mount Pelee first erupted in 1792. Half a century went by. In August, 1851, the volcano manifested itself again. Saint Pierre was covered in ashes, the countryside strewn with dead birds choked by the sulfurous vapors. Half a century later, the mountain awoke yet again.

Warnings began in February of 1902, with the strong smell of sulfur and dead birds. During the last week of April, activity increased.

On Saturday, May 3, the crater vomited flames and hurled large stones as far as one and a half miles away. Saint Pierre was covered with ashes, gray ashes as fine as sawdust that crept in everywhere. The people crowded the cathedral in the afternoon seeking absolution.

About 4:00 a.m. came a lull. Some, exhausted, their nerves frayed, threw themselves on their beds to get some rest, while others were feverishly gathering their most precious belongings, getting ready to depart from the town. A crowd was already trying to storm its way to the harbor and the boats.

Sensing impending doom, Leon Compere gathered up what few belongings he could carry and ran down the road toward Saint-Denis.

Suddenly, the mountain split from top to base to let go a blazing flame-filled thick black cloud streaked with lightening. With a great roar, it rushed down the mountainsides at tremendous speed and threw itself upon the town, covered and smothered it and set it ablaze. It reached the sea in less than two minutes, playing havoc in its passage. Nothing could resist this blazing whirl of over 3,500 degrees F. A shower of small stones fell upon the town along with a rain of slimy blackish mud and burning ashes.

Those not directly hit by the blazing avalanche were burned by the ashes and the boiling vapors of the cloud. At 7:50 am, life stopped in Saint Pierre.

Not a breath of life came from Saint Pierre. Desolation and ruins were everywhere. Tumbled down stone buildings, burned out wooden houses, sagged roofs, a few dilapidated walls rising toward the sky. Pulled down, leafless trees blocked and littered the streets. Columns of smoke rose here and there. As if a monument to the destruction, a piece of wall of the Military Hospital still stood, the hands of its clock stuck upon the Hour of Death.

The air reeked with putrid smells mixed with the acrid smell of burned flesh. Blackened and stiffened corpses were everywhere. Here the carrion of an animal, there the shriveled remains of a human body with an arm lifted up above its head in a pitible and vain gesture of defense. There again, a skeleton. As the wind stirred, it crumbled to dust. Once, it was a man.

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