Cover image for The last days of St. Pierre : the volcanic disaster that claimed thirty thousand lives
The last days of St. Pierre : the volcanic disaster that claimed thirty thousand lives
Zebrowski, Ernest.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New Brunswick, N.J. : Rutgers University Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
x, 291 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
QE523.P26 .Z43 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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On May 8, 1902, Mont Pel#65533;e on the island of Martinique exploded. A deadly cloud of steam and ash churned through plantations and villages, flattened the grand city of St. Pierre, then thundered into the bay where it sank eighteen ships and hundreds of smaller craft. Within a minute or two, nearly 30,000 humans died. The splintered rubble of their homes and belongings burned for three days, and the world began to understand the awesome power of nu#65533;es ardentes , glowing avalanches of hot gas and debris that sweep down the slopes of volcanoes, instantly steaming to death anything in its path. The enormous death toll was particularly tragic because it was avoidable. Had it not been for an unfortunate combination of scientific misjudgment and political hubris, most of the victims would have escaped.

            In The Last Days of St. Pierre , Ernest Zebrowski Jr. counts down the days leading up to the catastrophe, and unfolds a tale intertwining human foolishness and heroism with the remarkable forces of nature. Illustrations contrast life in Martinique before and after the eruption, and eyewitness accounts bring the story to life.

Although it seems a long time since the destruction of St. Pierre, it is a mere blink of an eye in our planet's geological history. Mont Pel#65533;e will erupt again, as will Vesuvius, Krakatau, St. Helens, Thera, and most other infamously fatal volcanoes, and human lives will again be threatened. The St. Pierre disaster has taught us much about the awesome power of volcanic forces and the devastation they can bring.


Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Following his absorbing survey of the science behind natural disasters, Perils of a Restless Planet (1997), Zebrowski here concentrates his attention on a single catastrophe, the volcanic annihilation of the French Caribbean city of St. Pierre in 1902. He reconstructs the disaster with an eye to exonerating the governor of Martinique, Louis Mouttet, who died in the event. Blame was heaped on Mouttet for not evacuating St. Pierre before it was incinerated by a volcanic eruption. The best Zebrowski offers in Mouttet's defense was his ignorance of the danger, the possibility that a warning cable he sent might have been destroyed, and a hesitancy to take action because of political concerns about an election campaign. In any event, complacency was not the sole reserve of the governor. In its final edition, the local rag assured worrywarts, "Where better could one be than in Saint Pierre?" Liberally quoting the accounts of stupefying shock experienced by surviving witnesses, Zebrowski successfully recounts the feel of this memorable cataclysm. --Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

The eruption of Mount Pele on the Caribbean island of Martinique in the spring of 1902 destroyed the entire French West Indies city of St. Pierre. A hundred years later, natural disaster buff Zebrowksi (Perils of a Restless Planet) has pulled together enough records to create a subtle though gripping account that combines powerful human drama (and tragedy) with a well-documented report of catastrophe in paradise. His account dwells on how easily the French bureaucratic order buckled like Walter Lord's A Night To Remember cast on an island fixed in a sea of cataclysms over the Atlantic Tectonic Plate. And like the Titanic disaster, this one came at just the moment when science (early seismometers were in place on the island) and undersea cable communications seemed capable of defending cities against forces of nature. Both St. Vincent's and Martinique suffered major volcanic eruptions in succession in April and May, but Zembrowski's premise that the colonial infrastructure of St. Pierre could have got many of the 30,000 who died out of the second volcano's way is somehow swept away by his own storytelling powers (his re-creation of the island governor's last cabinet meeting, for example). He is nearly as good as McPhee (Annals of the Former World) at making the earth move under the reader, and schadenfreude fans and historical disaster buffs will enjoy this one while perhaps in Paris some bureaucrat may yet be called to account. Illus. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

On May 8, 1902, Mont Pelee on the island of Martinique exploded. A vast cloud of superheated steam, ash, rocks, and debris descended on the port city of St. Pierre. In three or four minutes the entire population of the city, including many refugees from the surrounding countryside, died. The disaster attracted worldwide attention because it occurred in a prosperous French colony and was swiftly reported via telegraph. Numerous contemporary accounts, many ludicrously off the mark, attempted to describe the causes and effects of the eruption, but only with advances in volcanology over the last century have the real reasons for the explosion been largely explained. Mont Pelee was the first example of a pyroclastic surge to be examined by modern science, and observations there greatly assisted geologists in understanding volcanoes. Zebrowski (A History of the Circle) examines both the geologic situation and the social and political conditions that led the French authorities to concentrate as many people as possible in the path of certain death. This readable and entertaining popular history is well documented from French records, survivors' accounts, journalists, and scientific investigations. Highly recommended for public libraries and Caribbean collections. Edwin B. Burgess, U.S. Army Combined Arms Research Lib., Fort Leavenworth, KS (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Scientist Zebrowski, with uncommon accuracy, tells the story of the eruption of Mont Pelee on the Isle of Martinique on May 8, 1902, during which 30,000 lives were snuffed out in a matter of a few minutes by a sudden pyroclastic surge from the volcano. The essence of the disaster lies in its human devastation, all the more tragic because it could have been avoided. An unfortunate combination of political hubris, scientific ignorance, and human failures interacting with the powerful forces of nature dominate the days leading up to the catastrophe. Zebrowski, in 18 chapters, ending with lessons unlearned, weaves a human saga documented with original writings and authentic conversations from the few days before the eruption to several days after. Extensive research by the author in the Pelee volcano area and thorough searches through libraries and archives lend credence to this unique documentary of human responses to overwhelming odds of natural destructive forces. Numerous illustrations--photographs and artists' renditions--and select eyewitness accounts portray the rapidly unfolding tragedy. Sources of information are presented in chapter notes and an extensive bibliography. This fascinating true story offers compelling lessons in coping with volcanic hazards and human survival. General readers; upper-division undergraduates through professionals. T. L. T. Grose Colorado School of Mines