Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Read a Sample of Island on Fire on the Anniversary of the Eruption of Mount Pelee

Wednesday, May 7, 1902

Just before dawn, a violent scene erupted on Mount Pelée. Clouds of ash and bolts of lightning with reddish flames lit up the early-morning sky. Huge projectiles shot out of the crater with terrifying booms, rocking the town with explosions like cannon fire. Black smoke billowed out of the crater, creating a sense of impending doom. Glasses fell off tables, windows shattered, and barometers plummeted. The explosions knocked Rémy out of bed. Stumbling to his feet, he made his way to his desk, feeling the floor shaking beneath his feet. He grabbed his binoculars and made his way to the window to study the scene up close.
“Good Lord, it looks like the end of the world,” he said, feeling a profound sense of doom. The summit of Mount Pelée was alight with orange-red flames. Ash was spurting everywhere. The harbor looked like a scene from the last days of Pompeii. The once-sparkling blue water was dull and gray, littered with the corpses of farm animals, tree trunks, and deposits of ash and pumice stones that seemed to stretch on for miles.
He threw on his uniform and boots, refilled his cartridge with bullets, and went to receive his orders. Then he headed down to the courtyard, where his men were already assembled. Dividing them up into two groups, he sent the first group to patrol the town and keep order, and he sent the second group to guard the southern road to make sure people stayed safely in their homes.
More refugees flooded into Saint-Pierre. Some of them were survivors of the Guérin sugar factory disaster or had lost family members in the tragedy and were in a state of shock. Sisters from the convent brought them inside and gave them food and drink; the rest just wandered aimlessly through the throng or crowded into the marketplace, but food was scarce and money even scarcer. A shipment of food brought in by steamer went quickly. Bags of rice and beans and loaves of bread were handed out to famished residents, who grabbed them and fled back to their homes. Some people were too mesmerized by the pyrotechnic display on Mount Pelée to do anything but gape and stare. As the morning dragged on, more people flooded into Saint-Pierre since, by everybody’s estimation, it was the safest place for the displaced residents from the northern half of the island. Placards all over town announced that the volcano was on the wane and the people should sit tight and wait out the end of the eruption, but by the looks on their faces, few believed it anymore.
Rémy was exhausted from pursuing looters and squatters, yet more people arrived by steamers and small ferries or in simple donkey carts and horse wagons. The stream of refugees continued unabated. He reckoned the population had swelled by several thousand. But the volcano seemed no closer to quieting down. A thick layer of ash now covered every surface. Everyone’s clothes were covered in soot and ash. Children sat on the ground and played with the volcanic dust as if it were sand. The women were noticeably distressed. Their normally vibrant faces reflected fear and distress. For Rémy, the work was endless. He broke up countless fights, arrested dozens of disorderly civilians, and emptied houses of illegal squatters, but there was nowhere for them to go. They had taken up every inch of available space in the barracks, the inns, and the guesthouses. Some refugees were reduced to sleeping in the alleyways. Others crowded into the cathedral to hear mass or to baptize their children. Later, news began to spread like wildfire that the Soufrière volcano on Saint Vincent had erupted. This caused a wave of panic to spread throughout the crowd. They now began to collect outside the mayor’s office, demanding answers. As Rémy watched the faces of the angry citizens, he sensed a rising tension in the air, a sense of impending doom.
The latest issue of Les Colonies did little to calm everyone’s nerves. At his post guarding the southern road, Rémy scanned the headlines, disturbed by Marius Hurard’s carefully crafted front-page interview with Gaston Landes that looked to be no more than political showmanship:

According to observations made by M. Landes, in the early morning hours of yesterday, the central crater of the volcano vomited out a yellow and black powdery substance at various intervals. The bottom of the neighboring valleys should be evacuated and those remaining should keep to a certain height to avoid being overwhelmed by the muddy lava, as were Herculaneum and Pompeii. Vesuvius, added M. Landes, claimed only a few victims. Pompeii was evacuated in time and few corpses were found in the buried cities. In conclusion, Mount Pelée presents no more danger to Saint-Pierre than Vesuvius poses to Naples.

The article ended with the coup de grâce—a statement by Governor Mouttet himself:

The security of Saint-Pierre remains uncompromised.

Incensed, Rémy threw the newspaper on the ground, where it was trampled by the feet of the crowd.
He looked up suddenly and saw a cloud of black ash billowing out of Mount Pelée like a giant cauliflower, filling the skies with swirling black ash and volcanic dust that blocked out the sun and cast a gloomy shadow over the town. There was an audible hush among the crowd. Everyone stared at it in horror. The ominous nature of the cloud told Rémy one thing: the end was near.

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