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           Sudden Destruction

     “For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape.”

1 Thessalonians 5:3

     “Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh. 

      The lord of that servant shall come in a day when he looketh not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of, 

     And shall cut him asunder, and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Matthew  24:44,50,51


     It was on May 8, 1902, that the town of St. Pierre, on the lush West Indies island of Martinique, abruptly died. At exactly 7:50 A.M. on that disastrous morning, 4,583-foot Mont Pelee—a long-dormant volcano—blew its top in one of the world’s most cataclysmic explosions.  

     “The French-held island of Martinique shuddered like a stricken giant at the violent eruption. From the yawning mouth of the volcano, a huge black cloud of superheated air and gas emerged that rolled down the sloping side of the mountain like a monstrous tumbleweed. In its path, at the foot of the mountain, lay the harbor town of St. Pierre.  Within seconds the cloud swept over the city. Street by street, buildings leaped into instant flame and people were turned into human torches. The hideous black ball—its core later estimated to have been at least 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit— quickly reduced St. Pierre to smoldering ashes. Only two people survived the fiery devastation, and the rest of the populace— more than 30,000—died.  

     “Elapsed time from the moment of eruption to extinction of the city was less than two minutes!” Nature at War, 131, 132, by Hal Butler. 

      “…There were a few eyewitnesses outside the area covered by the black ball who survived, a handful on land and a dozen or more on ships at sea. From these came the most graphic descriptions—in fact, the only descriptions—of the sudden catastrophe.  

     “An unidentified passenger on the Roraima described the destruction of St. Pierre this way: 

      “‘I saw St. Pierre destroyed. It was blotted out by one great flash of fire. Thirty-thousand people were killed at once….

     “‘Our boat arrived at St. Pierre early Thursday morning. For hours before we entered the roadstead we could see flames and smoke rising from Mont Pelee….

      “‘When we anchored at St. Pierre I noticed the cable steamship Grappler, the Roddam, three or four other steamers and a number of Italian and Norwegian barks. The flames were then spurting straight up in the air, now and then waving to one side or the other for a moment, and again leaping suddenly higher up. There was a constant muffled roar. It was like the biggest oil refinery in the world burning up on the mountain top.  

     “‘There was a tremendous explosion soon after we got in. There was no warning. The side of the volcano was ripped out and there hurled straight toward us a solid wall of flame. It sounded like thousands of cannon... Before the volcano burst the landings of St. Pierre were crowded with people. After the explosion not one living being was seen on land.’ 

      “M. Albert, owner and manager of an estate near St. Pierre, witnessed the eruption from a position on land, and gave a vivid account of his experience: 

      “…there was a rending, crashing, grinding noise, which I can only describe as sounding as though every bit of machinery in the world had suddenly broken down. It was deafening, and the flash of light that accompanied it was blinding, more so than any lightning I have ever seen. It was like a terrible hurricane, and where a fraction of a second before there had been a perfect calm I felt myself drawn into a vortex and I had to brace myself firmly. It was like a great express train rushing by, and I was drawn by its force. 

      “‘The mysterious force leveled a row of strong trees, tearing them up by the roots and leaving a bare space of ground fifteen yards wide and more than one hundred yards long. Transfixed, I stood not knowing in what direction to flee. I looked toward Mont Pelee and above its apex formed a great black cloud which reached high into the air. It literally fell upon the city of St. Pierre. It moved with a rapidity that made it impossible for anything to escape it. From the cloud came explosions that sounded as though all the navies of the world were in titanic combat. Lightning played in and out in broad forks, the result being that intense darkness was followed by light that seemed to be magnified in power….

      “My estate was ruined while we were still in sight of it.’ 

      “…Leon Compere-Leandre, the shoemaker who was sitting on the doorstep of his home trying to decide whether or not to leave St. Pierre, had his reverie shattered by Mont Pelee’s final eruption. The explosion was so violent that it shook the entire island, and Leon felt a shuddering spasm under his feet. He staggered upright and caught a glimpse of the darkening sky and the menacing black ball rolling down the side of the mountain toward the doomed city. Trembling with fear, he turned to enter the house, but a hot wind buffeted him and he felt his body burning as if tongues of flame already were licking at his flesh. With difficulty he made his way into the house and staggered to the table. Three men and a ten-year-old girl were in the tiny house, all of them screaming with pain as the heated air raged over them. 

      “Leon moved to a table and hung over it, wondering if the end was near for him. Then he saw the girl collapse and die in twisting agony, and the three men fled blindly from the room. For what seemed hours—actually about a minute—he held tightly to the table. Then, noticing that the strange hot wind had abated, Leon pushed himself erect and walked into the bedroom where the little girl’s father lay. He found the man dead in his bed, already burned to a crisp by the heat. Stumbling into the courtyard he discovered the three men on the ground, their inert bodies charred. The thought crossed his mind, How can I be alive when the others are all dead? Screaming, he ran back into the house, threw himself on a bed, and awaited death. 

      “But for some strange reason no one since has been able to explain, death did not come. Instead Leon became aware that the roof of the house was burning and once more he stumbled outside. He saw now that his legs and arms were severely burned and bleeding, but he managed to run six kilometers to the next town—Fonds-Saint-Denis. Once he looked back. All of St. Pierre was in flames. A strangled cry escaped him and he staggered on. Unknown to him, he was one of only two people who had survived the annihilation of St. Pierre. 

      “Louis Cyparis, the prisoner, awaiting a breakfast that would never be served, knew that something more dreadful than a thunderstorm had taken place when Mont Pelee’s final paroxysm laid waste to St. Pierre. The noise of the explosion penetrated his underground chamber and the ground beneath his feet vibrated. He rushed to the grate to peer out but staggered back under an onslaught of heated air. The superheated cloud that had engulfed the city had stabbed through the open grating and seared Cyparis’ face and body. With a scream of pain he rolled in agony on the dungeon floor. 

      “‘Help! Save me! ’ he yelled, hoping to attract the attention of one of the jailers. But by this time there was no one to hear or to care. 

      “The fiery intrusion in the cell lasted only minutes, then faded. But it left Cyparis in agony, tortured by his burned flesh. For three days he lay groaning in the cell, not knowing what had happened or why no one came to his aid. 

      “On the third day he heard voices over his head and he yelled at the top of his lungs for help. This time he was heard. A rescue party searching the ruins of St. Pierre at once broke open the cell door. When Cyparis was brought out into the light of day, he was amazed to find that the city of St. Pierre no longer existed. In the case of Louis Cyparis, as in the incident involving Leon Compere- Leandre, the blast from the volcano had acted capriciously, leaving him as the only other survivor of the doomed city.

     “…On the freighter Roraima, Chief Officer Ellery S. Scott turned his telescope from the city of St. Pierre, where he was watching the colorfully attired people wending their way to and from church, toward the summit of Mont Pelee. At that exact moment the volcano exploded, and Scott witnessed the destruction of St. Pierre in the less than two-minute interval that followed. Afterward he was able to provide a detailed account of the tragedy: 

      “‘The whole top of the mountain seemed blown into the air. The sound that followed was deafening. A great mass of flames, seemingly a mile in diameter, with twisting giant wreaths of smoke, rolled thousands of feet into the air, and then overbalanced and came rolling down the seamed and cracked sides of the mountain. Foothills were overflowed by the onrushing mass. It was not mere flame and smoke. It was molten lava, giant blocks of stone and a hail of smaller stones, with a mass of scalding mud intermingled. 

      “‘For one brief moment I saw the city of St. Pierre before me. Then it was blotted out by the overwhelming flood. There was no time for the people to flee. They had not even time to pray.’ 

      “The great black ball of destruction that bounded down the mountain side and swallowed the city of St. Pierre did not stop there. It rolled out into the roadstead where seventeen ships lay at anchor. Scott watched helplessly as the ball billowed out over the water and swept toward his ship. At the last moment, Scott and a few others sought shelter by leaving the open deck and retreating into the innards of the vessel. The move saved Scott’s life, but many caught on the deck perished. 

      “When the ball hit, the Roraima rolled almost on her port beam-ends, then suddenly went to starboard. The stack, masts and lifeboats were carried away, and dozens of fires broke out. Eventually Scott and other survivors were removed from the burning ship by a rescue craft and taken to a hospital in Fort-de-France. 

      “In the roadstead of St. Pierre, all but one of the seventeen ships at anchor sank or perished in the flames after the black cloud passed over them. Only the British ship Roddam, covered with seething volcanic debris, afire in a dozen places, and with 28 crewmen and most passengers dead, managed to escape. She got away because she happened to have steam up at the time and was ready to sail. Her captain, badly burned, personally took the wheel and guided the ship to the nearby island of St. Lucia. A port official, horrified at the battered condition of the ship and the blackened bodies strewn about the deck, said, ‘My God, what happened to you? ’ 

      “‘We just came from hell,’ the captain said. 

“…Eventually, the Vicar-General and the police, soldiers and priests went ashore. In a letter written to Monseigneur de Cermont, Bishop of Martinique, who was in Paris, the Vicar-General described what he saw: 

      ‘…The Place is now nothing but a heap of confused ruins. Here and there are decaying bodies, horribly disfigured, and showing by the contraction of the limbs how awful must have been the death agony…. 

     “Those aboard the Vice-General’s relief ship and others who followed had the unpleasant task of burning or burying 30,000 bodies that quickly putrified in the heat of the sun. They found many of the victims in casual repose, indicating that the black cloud had snuffed out their lives suddenly and painlessly. Others, however, were distorted in agony. Most of the victims caught outside their homes were naked, with their hair burned away and what had been clothing either torn or seared from their bodies; others, indoors, were still covered with their charred clothes. Every stone house in the city had collapsed, and most lay completely in fragments. The entire city was covered by a ghostly white ash that in some places was several feet deep. 

     “Even though the giant ball of volcanic horror had swept the city in less than two minutes, it had enough time to play capricious tricks along the Way. In many cases solid objects were pulverized, while fragile articles were left untouched…. Although the wall of the military hospital was completely leveled, one section containing the clock still stood. The hands of the timepiece had stopped at 7:52, marking the exact moment that St. Pierre had died.  

     “…On May 20, cantankerous Mont Pelee erupted again. This time a violent explosion rent the air over the mountain at 5:15 in the afternoon. The Vicar-General, in Fort-de-France, stood on his balcony and watched the same amazing scene reenacted—a black ball of heated air and gases again tumbled down the slopes toward St. Pierre…. 

     “On a recent visit to Martinique we saw a few remaining walls standing in what had been St. Pierre. That was all, for the city that was once called the ‘Paris of the West’ was never rebuilt. Mont Pelee had not only destroyed a city of 30,000 people; it had ended a way of life.” Nature at War, 142-152.  

     “In 1902, St. Pierre, on the western coast of the island and only four miles from Mont Pelee, was Martinique’s major city. Twelve miles to the south was Fort-de-France, the capital of the island, but this was a small village that bore no resemblance to glittering St. Pierre. France was proud of St. Pierre; indeed, the French often referred to the city as the ‘little Paris’ or ‘the Paris of the West’ because of its sparkling social life.  

     “…In addition to being the social capital of the island, St. Pierre was also the commercial center. One of its major industries was the rum distillery, and its principal business street, Rue Victor Hugo, was lined with banks, stores and other commercial establishments. The ‘Paris of the West’ was also equipped to cater both to the welfare of the soul and the gratification of the flesh, for it boasted a stately Catholic cathedral and several parish churches, along with a theater where actors from France entertained, cafes, nightclubs and assorted emporiums designed specifically for uninhibited revelry. 

     “The French colonists, whose ancestors had settled on Martinique generations before, represented the elite of the island. They owned and supervised plantations producing tobacco, coffee, cacao and sugarcane. Most of them had built ostentatious villas in the mountains and spent much of their time either relaxing at these summer homes or sipping cognac in St. Pierre’s hotels and inns. This wealthy group of Pierrotins—as residents of St. Pierre were called—numbered about 7,000.  

     “Most of the city’s 23,000 other inhabitants were blacks. The men—usually bare-chested and dressed in canvas trousers and hats made of bamboo grass—were typically handsome; the women couched their natural beauty in colorful robes and turbans and strode the streets with trays and baskets of salable goods balanced on their heads. The waterfront was a scene of continuous activity as stevedores loaded and unloaded ships calling at what was one of the most profitable ports in the Caribbean. 

     “This was St. Pierre in 1902—a city that had every reason to believe in its future but a city that had no future at all.” Nature at War, 132-133.  

     Life in St. Pierre and Sodom followed a similar pattern. Sodom and Gomorrah were places where study was given to the development of every means whereby the desires of the flesh could be gratified and, from the description given here, so was St. Pierre.