St Pierre reigned as the Paris of the Caribbean. On May 7, 1902, this, the most glamourous city on Martinique, had it all… fashionable inhabitants, a swanky theatre featuring top French performers, wealthy plantation owners and enough bars and brothels to keep the most jaded sailor happy. By 8:15 am on May 8th, Asunción Day ironically, it had all disappeared.
Mt Pelee, the volcano just above the town had split in two. A fireball of superheated gas and burning mud rolled over the city. Approximately 30,000 people burned or suffocated to death, only remnants of buildings, trees and boats remained. Ludgar Sylbaris was one of only two survivors. He was a known bad boy with a reputation for drinking and fighting. The night before, he had been arrested, possibly for murder, and thrown in the worst cell the prison had.
A thick walled former armory storage with only a small window above the door, it was used for the solitary confinement of only the most obnoxious of local felons. It proved to be the only safe place in the city.
Pelee had begun rumbling a month before. On May 2nd a layer of ash covered the city. It seems inconceivable that people didn’t leave, back then it was inconceivable that anything could happen to such a rich beautiful city. The new governor couldn’t cope. He was overwhelmed by the logistics and was being pressured by business and political leaders who feared the economic consequences of an evacuation. They got the local paper to assure everyone that St Pierre was the safest place to be.
Worshippers were coming from all over the island to celebrate the Catholic Holiday in such a beautiful place. As they approached the city, they noticed heavy red smoke coming from the mountain. They decided to climb nearby hills and wait to see what happened. They witnessed a wave of energy, more powerful many say than the first atom bombs, destroy virtually everything in a 10-mile swathe.
Poor Sylbaris, still in his cell, felt the heat. He took off all his clothes and stuffed them in a gap in the door. He then urinated on them, hoping to stop what he assumed was a fire. Still trapped he suffered massive burns. It was four days before salvagers heard his cries and rescued him. There was no one left alive to verify why he was in jail. All his crimes were pardoned. After all he was the Man Who Survived Doomsday. As such he became a star attraction of P.T. Barnum’s traveling show, telling his horror story; showing his horrible scarring as a grand finale.
Today, St Pierre is a sleepy, slightly rundown charming tiny little town. A living museum, there are still many remnants of volcano damage and wonderful signs explaining how things used to be. Modern houses have incorporated bits of walls that remained standing. Its earie, historical and enchanting. The people are friendly, the restaurants tasty and the hotels small, simple and beguiling.