How One Man Survived the Mount Pelée Eruption that Wiped Out 30,000 People

Imagine that you are a convicted felon who likes to drink and fight. Your prison cell, partially underground, is nothing more than a lean-to cave of molten rock. Despite a lifetime as a career criminal, luck is on your side, however. You have just survived the worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century, which has killed 30,000 people within a matter of minutes.

mt. pelee distruction and Sylbaris prison cellPhoto: Unknown

Mt. Pelee, a highly active stratovolcano, is situated in the Caribbean. During the turn of the 20th century, St. Pierre was the largest city on the island of Martinique, with a population of 30,000. It was a glamorous and bustling place, with comparisons made to Paris and the like. However, unknown to its inhabitants who, like many in that time, were ignorant of volcanology, another resident had moved into the city around October 1902.

This new resident was the Needle of Pelée (or “Pelée’s Tower”), a volcanic spine that grew from the floor of a crater in the mountain and reached a maximum width of 500ft and a height of 1,000ft. Every day it would increase in height by 50ft, becoming “twice the height of the Washington Monument and more or less the same volume as the Great Pyramid of Egypt,” according to Wikipedia.

The infamous volcano began its path of destruction on April 23, 1902. Sulphurous vapours had been spewing from fumaroles near the top of the mountain, but his didn’t seem to bother experts and those who lived nearby. The mountain was well known for its empty threats. More warning signs erupted from the mountain in the coming days and weeks, but the locals refused to take those ominous signs seriously. Finally, at 7:52am, on May 8, 1902, there was a deadly eruption. The 30,000 people who lived on St. Pierre were killed almost instantly.

The upper portion of the mountain ripped open and a pyroclastic flow gushed down the mountain, engulfing every living thing in sulphuric flames. The mushroom cloud that occurred simultaneously was likely never seen by the victims of the disaster. The lava was far in excess of 1,967 °F, while the billowing cloud traveled at an astonishing speed of 420mph.

The city burned for days. Nothing was left apart from the charred remains of people and buildings. The burnt bodies were described as those of individuals who had died suddenly and without pain. Some of the people had fear or reproach etched into their faces. Yet they did not run and they did not hide from their devastating fate. Instead, they died in positions indicating what they were doing at the time, their skin and clothes ripped off their bodies by the hot blast. A few did show anguish, however, their expressions contorted by the sheer magnitude of the volcano’s strength.

Buildings had been crushed into mere ash and many bodies were never recovered. Even if familiar with the city, one would not have recognized any part of what was left. Those partial remains of the living that were unearthed by very deep heaps of calcified ruins were disposed of through cremation.

A flash heat of over 1,000 degrees permeated the prison cell of a man named Ludger Sylbaris. He urinated on his clothes and shoved the wet fabric into a small slit in the door to keep the heat from entering his cell. His efforts were largely unsuccessful. Yet despite having third degree burns covering most of his body, his lungs did not burn from the inside out like all the other victims because he likely kept the wet clothes over his face.

Sylbaris’s future took a radical 180-degree turn after the eruption. He was welcomed into the Barnum and Bailey circus because of his worldwide notoriety at having survived in the face of such incredible odds. The 27-year-old was the first black man to feature in the circus’s segregated show. He died of natural causes in 1929 aged 54.