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A ‘hurricane of fire’

It started like a biblical plague. Insects and snakes came down the trembling, smoking flanks of Martinique’s volcanic Mount Pelée in the spring of 1902, sweeping over farmers’ fields, infesting villages, attacking livestock. Deadly pit vipers wriggled in the streets of Saint-Pierre, known as the “Paris of the West Indies,” a glittering island city of 30,000 people. Soldiers were assigned to shoot the snakes on sight.

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The busy harbor was crowded with schooners, square-riggers and steamers, many in the sugar trade. Sailors watched in apprehension from decks as the mountain smoldered. Rumors flew. Tremors sent waves across the water. Ships rocked in the swell.

On the morning of May 8, the volcano exploded with unimagined power. In a matter of minutes, a blast of superheated gas and volcanic debris obliterated Saint-Pierre, leaving only a handful of survivors on land. “The wave of fire was on and over us like a lightning flash. It was like a hurricane of fire,” said Charles Thompson, assistant purser aboard the steamship Roraima, who survived the blast. “I saw it strike the cable steamship Grappler broadside and capsize her. From end to end she burst into flames and then sank. The town vanished before our eyes, and the air grew stifling hot, and we were in the thick of it.” Panic ensued as ships tried to slip anchors and flee; many burned or sank, including Roraima.

The British ship Rodham sailed out of Saint-Pierre in a rain of pumice and ash, damaged and with heavy fatalities. Arriving in St. Lucia with news of the disaster, the captain said, “We have come from the gates of hell.”

The image here was on the May 24, 1902, cover of Harper’s Weekly.

This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue.