Mount Pelee

By Daniel Pressly
The stratovolcano is famous for its eruption in 1902 and the destruction that resulted, dubbed the worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century. When Mt. Pelee erupted, there were just over 30,000 people living in the town of St. Pierre the eruption killed about 30,000 people. Most deaths were caused by pyroclastic flows and occurred in the city of Saint-Pierre, which was, at that time, the largest city on the island.
Pyroclastic flows completely destroyed St. Pierre within minutes of the eruption. The eruption left only two survivors in the direct path of the volcano: Louis-Auguste Cyparis survived because he was in a poorly ventilated, dungeon-like jail cell; Léon Compère-Léandre, living on the edge of the city, escaped with severe burns. Havivra Da Ifrile, a young girl, reportedly escaped with injuries during the eruption by taking a small boat to a cave down shore, and was later found adrift two miles (3 km) from the island, unconscious. The event marked the only major volcanic disaster in the history of France and its overseas territories.
Mount Pelée, French Montagne Pelée, active volcanic mountain on the Caribbean island of Martinique. Situated 15 miles (24 km) northwest of Fort-de-France, it reaches an elevation of 4,583 feet (1,397 metres). Pelée, whose name is a French term meaning “Bald,” consists of layers of volcanic ash and lavas. Its gently sloping cone is scored with ravines and supports luxuriant forests. Minor eruptions occurred in 1792 and 1851, but on May 8, 1902, it violently destroyed the port of Saint-Pierre, killing approximately 15 percent of the island’s population. So dramatic was this event that the name of the mountain has been adopted to describe that particular kind of eruption of ash, gas, and deadly nuée ardente (“fiery cloud”). A minor eruption occurred in 1929.
Mount Pelee Erupting
Below are facts of Mount Pelee erupting. The May 8, 1902 Mount Pelee eruption was followed by a high dollar amount of damage. The entire town of St. Pierre was obliterated within two minutes as Mount Pelee volcano exploded. Mt. Pelee was sometimes referred to as one of the deadliest volcanos.
Before the eruption of Mount Pelee, dozens of pit vipers poisonous snakes invaded the town of St. Pierre. The snakes fled from the slopes of the about to erupt Mount Pelee into the unsuspecting town, killing animals and humans. In this case, it did not take vulcanologists to warn about the forthcoming volcano eruption. Nature took its course and gave signs. However, it was not enough to evacuate the town.
An extremely destructive eruption of Mount Pelee occurred in 1902. A coastal town, about 4 miles downslope to the south, was demolished and nearly 30,000 inhabitants were killed almost instantly. During the eruption, a burning cloud of hot ash and gases swept into the town at a speed of 100 miles per hour. This picture illustrates the same kind of flow coming down an Alaskan volcano.
Survivors of this eruption included one man who was in an underground jail cell, as well as sailors who were off-shore and witnessed the destruction of the city from a distance.
In 1900 there was increased fumarolic activity at the volcano. Eruptions began in April 1902. On May 2, 1902 there were loud explosions and forceful ash emissions from the volcano. The volcano erupted with a pyroclastic flow on 8th may 1902 which reached the city of St. Pierre. On 20th May 1902 there was a second eruption equal in size to the 8th May eruption.
In October 1902, a volcanic spine grew to a height of 272 m above the lava dome. The spine collapsed in 1903.

The most recent eruptions in 1929-32 produced central vent explosions, pyroclastic flows, lahars, and lava dome extrusion.
On May 8 1902 Mt.Pelee unleashed an eruption which killed 30 00 people. Probably the highest volcanic death toll in modern times. Volcanology was in its infancy in the 1800s and the previous stirrings of the volcano in 1792,1851 and 1889 were considered nothing to be concerned about. In February 1902 sulphurous gases killed birds and in April earthquakes shook the mountain and the first eruption cloud covered residents in ash.
If this had happened in modern times then evacuation and close monitoring would have been organised but in 1902 the Martinique government had more pressing matters to attend to. The elections to decide who controlled the island. The ruling Progressive party wanted to maintain white control of the island and were being rivalled by a black candidate from the Radical party. In St.Pierre a the Progressive Party had won but not by a clear enough majority so another vote had to be organised for May 11.
On May 2 the volcano rumbled and showered the countryside with ash a glow was seen at the summit. People came to St.Pierre to escape the worst of the ash. A Martinique newspaper assured residents that there was no real danger and even organised a boat excursion to see the volcano on May 4.
On May 3 and 4 people watched the fireworks from the volcano. Food and fresh water were running low but the residents stayed on because of the election and reassurances that all was well! A mudflow engulfed a sugar mill and killed 23 people . When it entered the sea it caused a Tsunami which inundated the water front area killing 68 people. Soldiers were now brought in to prevent people leaving the city!The local population turned to Voodoo rituals for help.
On wednesay the 7th Nuee Ardent clouds flowed down the mountain but injured no one as the villages were by now empty. The Italian ship Orsalina was due to sail on the 8 but here captain sailed a day early leaving his passengers behind.
On the Morning of May 8 at 7.50am, as people were going to the Ascension Day services, a black cloud raced down the volcano at an estimated speed of 600km/hour and engulfed St.Pierre. A giant eruption cloud covered the sky for a 50 mile radius. The Governor ,his wife , The American consul ,his wife and the British consul were all killed as were 29 000 other residents.
The city was probably destroyed by a thin and rapidly moving Pyroclastic surge which came out laterally from the volcano. Only a few cms of ash was deposited so it seems the surge was probably only part of the explosion and the part of the eruption Nuee Ardente did not reach the town,as more rocks and a thicker deposit would have been left.(similar to Mt.St.Helens). The blast was composed of gas,steam and dust and was probably around 1000 C .
The city burnt for several days afterwards. 18 ships with crew and passengers in the harbour were also destroyed. Only 2 people survived on land a shoemaker and a prisoner in a small cell - Cyparis. A British ship managed to limp to St.Lucia with a badly burnt crew.
The volcano carried on erupting violently until the end of August taking another 1000 lives in villages. A tall Spine of lava was extruded from the summit reaching 340m in 1903.


Below I have my sources