Pelée, Martinique

St. Pierre in ruins, 1902.  (The Caribbean Photo Archive, Flickr)

St. Pierre in ruins, 1902. (The Caribbean Photo Archive, Flickr)

Pelée’s name has nothing to do with the Hawaiian fire goddess. This volcano sits in the Caribbean, on the island of Martinique. The locals named its stony summit “Pelé,” meaning “bald,” and then a map-maker misspelled the name and it stuck.

In early 1902, one hundred and thirteen years ago, Pelée came alive after a 50-year sleep. It ultimately killed tens of thousands of people. Even if volcanoes aren’t your thing, you probably have heard about the eruption that wiped out the entire city of St. Pierre in seconds. Only two people survived. But the eruption involved much more than that, both scientifically and socially.

I have been reading, and highly recommend, Ernest Zebrowski’s 2002 book The Last Days of St. Pierre: The Volcanic Disaster That Claimed Thirty Thousand Lives. It’s very accessible and written for the general public, and yet it is technically so helpful that I found it, not in a general library, but at the University of Oregon Science Library in the Volcanology section.

Pelée's lava in 1902 was sticky enough to stick straight up in "spines" that then collapsed.  Here is one of them.  (The Caribbean Photo Archive, Flickr)

Pelée’s lava in 1902 was sticky enough to stick straight up in “spines” that then collapsed. Here is one of them. (The Caribbean Photo Archive, Flickr) Here are some more images, including closeups.

In geological terms, no one in 1902 knew what a pyroclastic flow is and therefore no one understood how St. Pierre had been wiped out. That is to say, people understood that a fiery gray death cloud, which they called a nuée ardente (“glowing cloud”) did it, but they did not understand how the volcano had produced it.

Nowadays we call such eruptions – where very sticky lava erupts and then collapses in pyroclastic currents (as at Indonesia’s Sinabung volcano since 2013) – Pelean precisely because of studies of the 1902 eruption on Martinique.

This eruption of Pelée was the first time experts had ever observed things like lava spines and pyroclastic flows. It was a significant turning point in the history of volcanology.

Socially speaking, the governor of Martinique was killed along with the citizens of St. Pierre. Life was chaotic on the island for many months. Hunger and disease were rampant, and there was also a refugee crisis. In addition, many other towns were also directly affected by the eruption. Some were buried and lost. Others just had many destructive and disruptive close calls. Per Zembrowski, Morne Rouge was one of the latter.

In Morne Rouge, the local priest, Father J. Mary, stayed throughout the various phases of the eruption, helping residents despite all hazards and difficulties. Then, on August 30th, he personally confronted three pyroclastic flows. I haven’t been able to find the account online, so here is how Zembrowski describes this encounter of man versus volcano:

"Father Mary, a middle-aged man with gray eyes and a fresh complexion...did not look at all like a man who had been subjected to long continued nervous strain, or who had been rendered apprehensive by weeks of imminent danger. On the contrary he seemed as buoyant and light-hearted as a frolicsome boy..."   - George Kennan

“Father Mary, a middle-aged man with gray eyes and a fresh complexion…did not look at all like a man who had been subjected to long continued nervous strain, or who had been rendered apprehensive by weeks of imminent danger. On the contrary he seemed as buoyant and light-hearted as a frolicsome boy…”
George Kennan

In Morne Rouge, less than three miles southeast of the raging volcano, a contingent of gendarmes distributed 2,100 rations to the people of Morne Rouge. Everything and everyone were coated with grayish white ash, and the only color in the scene was a flickering orange glow at the summit of the mountain. The effect was surrealistic, as if the Devil’s workers were distributing provisions to a crowd of newly arrived ghosts outside the gates of hell.

That evening of August 30, sunset did not bring darkness. A wild display of lightning bathed the entire northern third of the island in a flickering yet continuous light. Some of the electrical discharges were rodlike, others wavey or even spiral shaped. Then began a fusillade of those weird starburst explosions and their terrifyingly loud reports. [Note: Elsewhere in the book Zembrowski explains the starbursts.]

At 8:45 p.m., it happened. A fearsome explosion rattled every loose object in Father Mary’s rectory. The priest dashed outside to a horrible sight: cascading toward him, clearly on a course that would bring it straight up the main street of town, was a monstrous “whirlwind of fire.” He shouted frantically, as if he might actually be heard above the thunder of the death cloud, “Into the church, everyone! Into the church!”

People spilled from their homes, including some who had barricaded themselves in for the past several days…Father Mary stood as a pillar of faith and courage in the midst of the chaos, facing the volcano in his cassock and pith helmet, waving everyone on, shouting that they must hurry, squeezing an arm here and a shoulder there as the flood of parishioners rushed past him toward the sactuary. The nuée ardente churned ever closer, until it appeared to be right on the heels of scores of people still sprinting toward him. Its top billowed upward, carrying flashes of lightning and fiery explosions high overhead. Father Mary raised his outstretched hands toward the advancing harbinger of death and destruction and said a prayer. A quick one.

Miraculously, the death cloud’s forward motion stalled, and its monstrous mass of smoke swept upward into the sky. It may have swallowed some of the souls fleeing it, but not all; many were still frantically running toward the priest. Although that would have been a good time for Father Mary himself to dash to the safety of the house of worship, apparently it never occurred to hm to save himself until everyone else was safe. He stood steadfast in the middle of the street, waving his arms and shouting to those still approaching, “Come! Come quickly! Into the church! Hurry!”

A second violent explosion shook the air. The volcano lay hidden behind the still-dissipating smoke of the initial pyroclastic surge, and it was impossible to see what was happening. Still, the priest stood his ground. Only when he had spurred the last of his congregation past him did he turn to scamper behind them toward the sanctuary. Yet even then , he had to be sure that they were really the last, and he stopped to peer up the street one last time. Were others still coming? And only then did he realize that he was standing direcctly in the path of a second death cloud. it was thundering toward him through the rising dust of the first.

The priest yanked up his cassock and ran. He knew that the deadly phenomenon was fast, but at least he had a head start. Holding the heavy church door half open, a parishioner shouted, “Hurry, Father!” With the death cloud two hundred yards away, he had only another fifty yards to go, and for a moment it looked like he might make it. Then a violent blast of wind driven before the onrushing cloud threw the priest to the ground and slammed the heavy door shut. A few seconds later, the nuée ardente engulfed him.

Father Mary was burned but still able to stagger to his feet. And the church, sheltering hundreds of people, had mainly withstood the shock. Unfortunately, Pelée had launched a third nyuee ardente closely on the heels of the second. Before he could stumble the last fifty feet to the church, he was struck again. When the smoke dissipated this time, the priest could barely crawl. Several horrified parishioners carried him inside.

Whether or not the last part of Father Mary’s story is apocryphal, it is worth including here as a testimony to the man and his dedication to his faith.

At 11 a.m. on September 1, the day after his arrival at the hospital, one of his nurses heard the priest trying to speak. She went to his side and gently placed her hand on an unbandaged spot on his shoulder.

“How many died, Sister?” he questioned in a hoarse voice.

“This isn’t the time to worry yourself, Father,” she said. “Let me help you drink some water.”

“I really must know, Sister,” he insisted. “How many died? A hundred?”

She slowly shook her head.

“A thousand?”

The nurse’s eyes grew glassy.


She nodded sombrly as a tear streamed down her cheek. They maintained eye contact for a moment more, then the priest rolled his head back on the pillow. His eyes suddenly seemed to be focused far, far away.

“Then you must excuse me, Sister,” he whispered, “for I must tend my flock.”

And with that, Father Mary died.


Morne Rouge after the August 30 eruption.  (The Caribbean Photo Archive, Flickr)

Morne Rouge after the August 30 eruption. And they were on the outermost fringe of a pyroclastic flow! (The Caribbean Photo Archive, Flickr)


If Zembrowski’s Last Days of St. Pierre were a movie, it would be even more riveting and also much more accurate than Dante’s Peak or the BBC’s Supervolcano (note, though, that there is some creativity in the above excerpt which is clearly meant to honor Father Mary on his own terms: pyroclastic currents are actually silent, though witnesses that night in Morne Rouge may have heard sounds of the destruction the nuée ardentes caused; too, the area near the church was far enough away to only receive the very outermost fringes of the cloud’s last runout because otherwise the church would have instantly been reduced to rubble, as St. Pierre had been earlier in the year, and everybody would have immediately died horribly).

Per the Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism Program, the VEI 4 eruption that started in 1902 ended in 1905. Then another, much less deadly VEI 3 eruption began in 1929 and ended in 1932. Since then, Pelée has slumbered. People have come back because of course they have. There is a new St. Pierre now, much smaller. This “city of art and history” is home to some 4,600 people, and it’s beautiful. However, they have not forgotten the past.



Today we understand volcanic hazards much better, and Pelée is closely monitored (French language). It seems unlikely that another tragedy like the one in 1902 will be repeated, even if St. Pierre’s growth eventually matches its former glory. There will be plenty of warning, and people now have the tragic past to guide their decision-making.

Still, volcanology has its limits:

It is a basic goal of volcanology to investigate what causes the change from an inactive or weakly active state to an active phase, as well as the accompanying phenomena, We can only deduce from observations and plausible arguments that over the long term, increased activity is a consequence of the rise of a batch of magma from the depths. We cannot know why, when, where, or how big.

— Rolf Schick, quoted at the Volcanism Blog (which, unfortunately, hasn’t been active recently but is still a wonderful resource)

Mount Pelée – any volcano, really – does know these things…and it’s not telling.



  • Pelée. Global Volcanism Program
  • Pelée. Oregon State
  • George Varian’s close-up drawing of the lava spine AT the crater (description of the ascent to the crater, shortly after St. Pierre’s destruction and other beautiful color drawings by Varian are in Zembrowski’s book – can’t find them on the Web)
  • Mount Pelée. Wikipedia<
  • /ul>

Categories: Sunday morning volcano

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