Every natural disaster comes with signs. Before a volcano erupts, you would notice several things like subtle swelling of the ground, small changes in heat flow, and even noticeable steaming from the ground around the area. Animals may also serve as indicators of an upcoming disaster. Was this the same case with the eruption of Mt. Pelee?
The eruption of Mt. Pelee was deemed the worst eruption of the 20th century. But a couple of days before its eruption, 50 people died because of an invasion of giant centipedes and pit vipers coming from the volcano’s slopes.
The Eruption in 1902
Mt. Pelee, a 400-year-old stratovolcano located on the island of Martinique in the eastern Caribbean sea, is 1,400 meters above sea level and is just 7 kilometers away from the city of St. Pierre. Mt. Pelee, whose name is a French term meaning bald, consists of layers of volcanic ash and lavas from previous eruptions. (Source: Britannica)
Before the 20th century, the volcano was known as a gentle giant to residents of St. Pierre, minor eruptions occurring in 1792 and 1851, then becoming dormant for almost half a century. But in 1902, the great volcano produced one of the deadliest eruptions of the century. (Source: Earth Magazine)
On May 7, 1902, Mt. Pelee caused several strong tremors and spilled out a cloud of gas with a temperature that was more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. And finally, on May 8, the volcano erupted in a tremendous blast. The eruption caused an avalanche of boiling ash down the mountain. (Source: History)
The eruption destroyed the port of St. Pierre and killed 30,000 people, destroying the whole city in the process. Hot gas and volcanic debris consumed the town and its population, including the governor and his family, who visited St. Pierre to assure them that they were safe. Studies theorized that most people died due to suffocation and severe burns that scorched their skins and lungs. (Source: Earth Magazine)
The eruption leveled the town, with the help of the volcanic clouds’ speed reaching more than 100 meters per second. The volcano burned St. Pierre for days after the eruption, leaving only three people alive: Havivra Da Ifrile, a ten-year-old girl who managed to get into a boat and found shelter inside a cave, Léon Compère-Léandre, who jumped into the boiling ocean and suffered severe burns but survived, and a violent criminal, Louis-Auguste Cyparis.
Cyparis, due to his violent nature, was locked up in solitary confinement inside a stone cell. The cell effectively protected him from the destructive force of the eruption. He managed to stay alive despite being covered with burns. (Source: All That’s Interesting)
The Signs Before the Deadly Eruption
The city of St. Pierre was busy and was caught up amidst a significant election when Mt. Pelee started showing signs of its eruption. The first signs of the volcano becoming active again were reported to have started as early as April, almost a month before it dealt its destructive blow. Subtle signs began to show. The city felt small tremors, and clouds rolled down the volcano’s slopes.
Soon, an underwater telegraph cable connecting Martinique and Dominica was broken. Then a lake suddenly formed in the caldera. Then on May 2, there was a small eruption, lighting up the night sky, and the day after, the people of St. Pierre woke up to an eerie sight, birds began to fall from the sky, and dead fish were floating in the waters nearby.
Then the volcano showed a scarier sign it would erupt. The activity inside Mt. Pelee caused insects and snakes to flee the side of the mountain. Some accounts stated that gigantic centipedes and 2-meter long pit vipers descended on the city, claiming hundreds of livestock and about 50 people.
The residents of St. Pierre could have been saved if they had heeded to these telltale signs. They had the chance to evacuate before it was too late. (Source: Earth Magazine)