St. Pierre was a picturesque French West Indian city situated on the northwest coast of the island of Martinique, then a French colony and currently an overseas department of France. In 1902, the city was a bustling port with finely crafted homes, paved streets, and electricity; which contributed to the city’s nickname as “the Paris of the Antilles.” American business interests were prominent throughout the city and these were watched over by Consul Thomas Prentiss who resided in St. Pierre with his wife Clara and their two young daughters. With a population approaching 30,000, St. Pierre was the social and economic capital of the island.
Roughly 7km northeast of St. Pierre was the 4,300 ft. peak of a dormant volcano known as Mount Pelee. The volcano had not been active since a minor eruption in 1851 and if it was noted for anything by the residents of St. Pierre it was an excellent area to hike and picnic away from the heat of the coast.
The peace of Mount Pelee began to falter in April 1902. Steam was noted at the summit and after a minor earthquake clouds of dark ash added to people’s apprehension. A sulfurous smell descended on St. Pierre and a fine ash fell across the city. Clara Prentiss wrote two letters to her sister in Massachusetts noting the deteriorating situation, including rumblings from the volcano dislodging dishes and sulfurous odors strong enough to suffocate horses. Mudflows, known as lahars, on May 5 and 7 claimed the first human casualties; there were several hundred victims along the Riviere Blanch.
At 8 a.m. on May 8 the full fury of Mount Pelee was released in two rapid, earthshattering explosions. The first sent a plume of ash to an altitude of seven miles and the second discharged horizontally sending a turbulent cloud of hot gas and fine particles towards St. Pierre. Known as a pyroclastic surge, the menacing cloud traveled at 120 miles per hour with an average temperature of 700 degrees Fahrenheit. The surge engulfed St. Pierre for only a few minutes but it was impossible to survive the extreme temperatures and lack of oxygen. The devastation was not even constrained at the shore as 17 of the 18 large ships in the harbor were sunk.
Telegram from Theodore Roosevelt to President Loubet of France, May 10, 1902. From Library of Congress, Manuscripts division.
Amid the roughly 30,000 dead was the entire Prentiss family. There was only one survivor from the main area of the city, a prisoner confined to what was originally a stoutly built ammunition magazine. The eruption of Mount Pelee was the deadliest volcanic event of the 20th century and the tragedy provided the subsequent name for eruptions characterized by large pyroclastic flows or surges, Pelean eruptions.
Zebrowski, Ernest. 2002. The last days of St. Pierre: the volcanic disaster that claimed thirty thousand lives. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
Sigurdsson, Haraldur. 2000. Encyclopedia of volcanoes. San Diego: Academic Press.