The Man Who Lived Through Doomsday

The City of Saint-Pierre, with Mount Pelée behind it, shortly before the volcano awoke in 1902.

Early on the morning of May 8th, 1902, the city of Saint-Pierre, located on the French Caribbean island of Martinique, was destroyed by an eruption of Mount Pelée. At 7:52 AM, a blast from the volcano sent a pyroclastic flow down into the city of 30,000, killing the entire population. Well, everybody but one man: Ludger Sylbaris, who became known as the man who lived through Doomsday.

By the end of the 19th century, the city of Saint-Pierre was a bustling, beautiful place, often referred to as the "Paris of the West Indies." Founded in 1635 by Pierre Belain d'Esnambuc, a French trader and adventurer, it was the first permanent French colony on Martinique. By the beginning of the 20th century it was the largest city on the island.

Behind the city, however, towered the peak of Mount Pelée. With an elevation of 4583 feet (1,397 m), it dominated the skyline of the town which was only four miles from the summit of the mountain.

Ludger Sylbaris became known as the "Man Who Lived Through Doomsday."

The Sleeping Volcano Next Door

Though the citizens of Saint-Pierre were aware that the mountain next door was a volcano, it had been largely quiescent during the history of the town. The last volcanic event had been a minor phreatic (steam) eruption that occurred in 1851 that was not within the memory of most of the inhabitants by 1902. Only the appearance and disappearance of the occasional fumarole (steam vent) reminded the population of the nature of the peak. This started to change in the summer of 1900, however, when loud groaning could occasionally be heard from inside the mountain.

Still, there was little concern until April 23 of 1902. On that day, a series of sharp, underground shocks startled the residents of the town. Up on the mountain, a light rain of cinders fell on its southern and western slopes. Two days later, a large cloud containing rocks and ashes appeared from the crater at the top. While the appearance of this produced some concern, only minor damage was caused by the event. The next day, however, the town found itself dusted by a light layer of ash.

This prompted several people on April 27th to climb the mountain and see what was going on at the top. When they reached the crater, they found it filled with water, creating a lake 590-feet across. Located on one edge of this new lake was a 50-foot-high cone of volcanic debris. From the cone flowed a steady stream of boiling water and the air was strong with the smell of sulfur.

These changes caused concern in the city, but it was felt that the main danger to the town would be from lava flows. However, it was thought that these would be blocked and diverted by the valley that lay between the mountain and the town.

Late in the evening on May 2nd, the mountain rocked the city with a series of loud explosions and earthquakes that lasted almost 6 hours. A massive pillar of dense, black smoke poured from the crater. Streams began to fill with dust and debris, killing livestock in the area that depended on the water to survive.

What remains of the life saving prison cell today. (CC BY-SA 3.0 courtesy Riba)

By Sunday, a number of the city inhabitants were so concerned that they decided to leave the area and steamers bound for other parts of the island were packed full. Still, this was a minority of the population and in fact the number of people in the town actually grew as those residing in many of the rural villages in the area fled to the town, which was considered "safe."

On Monday morning the mountain seemed to become calm, but by the afternoon another worry beset the city dwellers: the sea. The ocean had mysteriously receded 300 feet, then rushed back with a vengeance, flooding low-lying areas. Then, up on the mountain, the side of the crater collapsed and out poured a mixture of boiling water and mud (called a lahar) that flowed into the Blanche River. The lahar flooded the Guérin Sugar Works outside the city and buried 150 victims under hundreds of feet of mud.

On May 7th the mountain's activity seemed to peak: clouds of ash poured from the crater, causing bolts of volcanic lightning to strike around the mountaintop. As it grew dark, the crater glowed with a reddish-orange light. The authorities in the city and the newspapers insisted that the town was safe and the volcano was just relieving internal pressure. Not reassured, many fled the town, but even more people entered it as refugees from the countyside.

The Life Saving Prison Cell

That night, a farm worker named Ludger Sylbaris, who was frequently in trouble with the authorities, got into a drunken fight and by some accounts, nearly caused a riot. Police decided to throw him into solitary confinement and he was locked in a small, stone-walled, partially-underground cell with no windows and only a small vent in the metal door.

What remained of the city shortly after the disaster.

According to Sylbaris, at around breakfast time the next day, it grew very dark and suddenly hot air mixed with fine ashes rushed into the cell from the small grating in the door. He pulled his clothes off, urinated on them and stuffed them into the vent to block the heat. Despite his efforts, the temperature shot up in the cell until it felt like and oven and Sylbaris suffered extensive burns.

What had caused the sudden heat? Outside, the side of the volcano had suddenly been blown out and a mass of hot gas and volcanic material, called a pyroclastic flow, raced down the mountain at an estimated speed of 420 mph (670 km/h). With a temperature of over 1,800 °F (1,000 °C), it set anything combustible on fire and either burned and/or suffocated virtually the entire population of the city.

Why had the authorities thought the city was safe? Pyroclastic flows were not well understood at the time, even though a similar one had doomed ancient Pompeii in 79 A.D.. Those in charge thought the main danger was from slow-moving lava flows, which they thought would be blocked from the town by a hill. The pyroclastic flow, however, was moving so fast that it simply climbed topped the hill and flowed into the city, utterly destroying it and the 30,000 to 40,000 people who were living there or sought refuge there.

While a few people who were on the edge of town survived, Sylbaris was the only person in the center of the city who avoided a horrible death. Four days after the disaster, a relief crew heard him calling from his cell and rescued him. Given the circumstances, Sylbaris was pardoned of his crimes and later found fame and job security touring America with the Barnum & Bailey's circus, recounting the horrors of that day under the title of "The Man Who Lived Through Doomsday."

Mt. Pelee now sleeps again.

Copyright Lee Krystek 2019. All Rights Reserved.