Mount Pelée

The 1902 Eruption of Mount Pelée

      May 8th, 1902, at 8:00 am , the city of Saint-Pierre has been destroyed in a few minutes by a pyroclastic flow . The economic and cultural capital of the Caribbean at this time including its population has been wiped out in an instant. It has lost its town status before retrieving it in 1923 but Saint-Pierre will never recover its magnificence and aura preceding the disaster.

The Mount Pelée eruption - the 8th of May 1902 - french video

Saint-Pierre and the Mount Pelée in 1902

Saint-Pierre: The pearl of the West-Indies

The volcano has a conic shape with a depression at its top: the Caldera of "l'Etang Sec" . This geological formation (not to be confused with the crater ) is the result of a previous eruption when the magma chamber has emptied. It looks like an ellipse of roughly 1km wide and surrounded by walls rising from 150 to 200m. It takes its name- "Etang Sec" means dry pond- from the fact that unlike most other volcanoes with a caldera, it is not filled with water. The river "Rivière Blanche" - which will play a role in the forecoming events- is located precisely at the bottom of the least high part of the depression. This location of the caldera of about 30m high is called the dam of the "Etang Sec" .

The forerunners

Fumerolles at the top of the Mount Pelée

At the begining of 1902 the first fumerolles are seen at the top of the volcano Mount Pelée. All the area is shrouded in a rotten egg atmosphere, specific of hydrogen sulphide. Only the populations directly concerned by those emissions are starting to worry . The others do not pay much attention , including Saint-Pierre inhabitants and are instead focused on the big event of the moment: the general elections.

04/23/1902 : Some earthquakes are felt in the "Prêcheur" area (north of Saint-Pierre).

04/25/1902 : Eruptions are starting. A huge cloud of ashes and rocks appears at the top of the volcano. The city of "Le Prêcheur" is now overwhelmed with anxiety while Saint-Pierre inhabitants do not seem to realize the seriousness of the situation.

04/27/1902 :The smell of sulfur has now reached the town of Saint-Pierre. At the same time
the first round of general elections occurs.
The caldera is now filling up with a muddy mixture.

05/02/1902 : The eruptive activity intensifies. Until then, all the phenomena were similar to the previous eruption of 1851. The mountain rumbles, a huge plume of black smoke rises over the volcano. Saint-Pierre is also hit by ashes' rains. The population is worried but still undecided because of the reassuring speech from a part of the political class that remains focused on the second round of the elections.

05/05/1902 :The "Rivière Blanche" lahar - mudslide of volcanic materials.
The dam of "l'Etang-Sec" gives way under the pressure of the mud filling the caldera and causes a flood of the river. The mudslide flows down the hill at high speed and destroys in its wake the rum distillery Guérin and kills twenty people . Arriving at the shore, the mudslide generates a mini tidal wave.
At the same time , all kinds of insects and poisonous snakes invade Saint -Pierre and its nearby.

05/06/1902 : The eruptive activity is now at a magmatic stage. The magma surfaces in the caldera and is thrown away in the midst of ashes, rocks and smoke plumes .

D-1 Day : First pyroclastic flows
They are still of low level and occur in the morning without reaching for the moment the city of Saint -Pierre nor any other town .
During the night , volcanic phenomena are continuing. At the same time, heavy rains due to the condensation of the water vapour concern all the area.

D Day : May the 8th, the Ascension Day, before the disaster, the pouring rains of the previous day had the effect of cleaning Saint-Pierre of ashes and pyroclastic ammas. Nevertheless, a huge column of smoke is threatening.         

The eruption and its consequences

Pyroclastic flow

May the 8th, 1902, at 08:00am , a pyroclastic flow get out from the Mount Pelée volcano and descends on the city of Saint -Pierre destroying everything on its way, up to the ships in the bay. It is a mixture of gas and material at very high temperatures, up to 500 °C, moving at a tremendous speed of over 200 km/h.
Arriving at the harbor of Saint-Pierre , the shock wave creates a tidal wave that added to the destructive effect of the flow.

Saint-Pierre' cathedral after the disaster

While the town of "Prêcheur" escaped unscathed from this disaster, although closer to the volcano, the city of Saint -Pierre has been completely annihilated. Most of the buildings were completely blown. Some walls remained standing when they were in the axis of the shock wave .

Louis Cyparis

Two people survived this disaster : it is the shoemaker Léon Compere and Louis Cyparis who were locked the night before in a cell. They owe their salvation to the thickness of the walls and the fact that the jail was partly buried . Apart from these two and twenty sailors who survived, all the inhabitants of Saint-Pierre still present at the time of the eruption died mainly by asphyxiation along the way of the pyroclastic flow. This fateful day will total rougly 28 000 people who perished in minutes.