Loss of the SS Roraima St Pierre 104th Anniversary


Jim Kalafus

Kyle Johnstone sends his best to the board from St. Pierre, Martinique, today marking the 104th anniversary of the loss of that city, and at least 18 ships, in a volcanic eruption.

For those not familiar with this story, a brief summary. In April 1902, Mont Pelee, Martinique's volcano of note came to life, raining down a constant shower of volcanic ash and emitting gusts of sulphur-scented gas down on the city of St. Pierre, all of which was initially viewed as a nuisance. By the first week of May, with the activity on Pelee intensifying rather than abating, the mood in the city and surrounding towns had turned pessimistic and increasingly fatalistic as residents - for the most part unable to flee - came to grips with the knowledge of what the probable outcome of the eruption would be. A letter mailed to France by a woman destined to die on May 8th, included a sample of the volcanic ash that was raining down on the city and read, in part:

"My calmness astonishes me. I am awaiting the event tranquilly. My only suffering is from the dust which penetrates everywhere, even through closed windows and doors. We are all calm. Mama is not a bit anxious. Edith alone is frightened. If death awaits us there will be a numerous company in which to leave the world. Will it be by fire or asphyxia? It will be what God wills. You will have our last thoughts. Tell brother Robert that we are still alive. This will, perhaps, no longer be true when this letter reaches you....

Pierre 1 copy1

(A pre-disaster view showing the residential quarter along the Riviere Roxelaine in St. Pierre)

A few days before the final disaster, Pelee disgorged an avalanche of volcanic mud that overwhelmed and buried a sugar factory along with all of its occupants. In the city, silver was tarnishing overnight, horses were (anecdotally) dropping in their harness from the sulphur fumes, and those few who were evacuatuing to Fort de France were being more than replaced in mumber by those refugeeing into the city from outlying towns and farms.

At 8:02 in the morning, on May 8th, 1902, Pelee emitted a huge cloud of superheated gas which travelled down the valley and into the city with the speed and strength of a tornado. The most disturbing aspect of what happened is that the cloud took several minutes to reach town and everyone saw it coming but were unable to effectively flee. The destruction of the city took perhaps 3 minutes,and when it was over at least 30,000 were dead and only 5 survived. Of these five, three women found alive in the ruins soon died, leaving only two men as shore side survivors.

There were at least 19 large ships and an unknown number of smaller craft in the harbor at St. Pierre. One, the steamer Roddam, managed to escape damaged and with heavy fatalities. A second, the small passenger liner Roraima, of the Quebec Line, endured long enough for the 15 or so survivors of the 68 on board to be taken off by a rescue vessel. It is from these few survivors that the best eyewitness accounts of the catastrophe were gathered. The Roraima had arrived in St. Pierre only an hour or so before the end and was anchored within a few hundred feet of the doomed city:

"The spectacle was magnificent. As we approached St. pierre we could distinguish the rolling and leaping of the red flames that belched from the mountain....

"When we anchored at St. Pierre I noticed the cable steamship Grappler, the Roddam, three or four American schooners and a number of Italian and Norwegian barks.

"There was a constant muffled roar....there was a tremendous explosion about 7:45 o'clock soon after we got in. There was no warning. The side of the voclano was ripped out and there was hurled towards us a solid wall of flame.

"The wave of fire was on and over us like a lightning flash. It was like a hurricane of fire. I saw it strike the cable steamship Grappler broadside and capsize her. From end to end she burst into flames and then sank. The town vanished before our eyes and the air grew stifling hot, and we were in the thick of it.

"Wherever the mass of fire struck the sea the water boiled and sent up vast clouds of steam. The sea was torn into huge whirlpools. One of these whirlpools swung under the Roraima and pulled her down on her beam ends with the suction. She careened way over to port, and then the fire hurricane from the volcano smashed her and over she went on the opposite side. The fire swept off the masts and the smokestack....

Captain Muggah...was caught by the fire wave and terrribly burned. he yelled to get up the anchor, but before two fathoms were heaved in the Roraima was almost upset by the boiling whirlpool and the fire wave had thrown her down on her beam ends to starboard. Captain Muggah was overcome by the flames. He fell unconscious from the bridge and fell overboard.

"The blast from the volcano lasted only a few minutes...after the explosion, not one living being was seen on land. Only twenty-five of those on the Roraima, out of sixty-eight were left after the first flash.

"The French cruiser Suchet came and took us off at 2 p.m.

(Assistant Purser Thompson, Roraima)

"it was on us in almost no time, but I saw it and in the same glance saw our captain bracing himself to meet it on the bridge. He was facing the fire cloud with both hands gripped hard to the bridge rail, his legs apart and his knees braced back stiff....in another instant it was all over for him. As I was looking at him he was all ablaze. He reeled and fell on the bridge with his face towards me....I knew he was conscious when he fell by the look in his eyes, but he didn't make a sound.

"This all happened inside a half-minute then something new happened. When the wave of fire was going over us, a tidal wave of sea came from the shore and did the rest...the tidal wave picked up the ship like a canoe and then smashed her. After one list to starboard the ship righted, but the masts, the bridge, the funnel and all the upper works had gone overboard.

Captain Muggah went overboard, still clinging to the smashed fragments of his wrecked bridge...there were only four of us left aboard who could do anything. The four were Thompson, Taylor, Quashee and myself. It was still raining fire and hot rocks and you could hardly see a ship's length for dust and ashes but we could stand that. There were burning men and some women and two or three children lying around the deck. Not burned, but burning when we got to them. More than half of the ships' company had been killed in that first rush of flame.

"The ship was on fire, what was left of it. The stumps of both masts were blazing. Aft she was like a furnace, but forward the flames had not got below deck, so we four carried those who were still alive into the forecastle. All of them were burned and many of them were half strangled.

One boy, a passenger and just a little shaver was picked up naked. His hair and all of his clothing had been burned off, but he was alive. We rolled him in a blanket and put him in a sailor's bunk. A few minutes later we looked at him and he was dead. My own son is gone, too. It had been his trick at lookout ahead during the dog watch that morning when we were making for St. Pierre so I supposed at first when the fire struck that he was asleep in his bunk and safe. But he wasn't. he was a likely boy. he had been several voyages with me and would have been a master some day. He used to say he'd make me mate.
(Ellery Scott, Mate, Roraima)
Pierre 2

(Roraima, pre 1902)

"We had been watching the volcano sending up smoke. The captain, who ws killed, said to my mistress, "I'm not going to stay any longer than I can help." I went to the cabin and was dressing the children for breakfast when the steward, who was later killed by the the blast, rushed past shouting "the volcano is coming!" We closed the door and at teh same momnet came a terrible explosion which nearly burst the eardrums. The vessel was lifted high into the air and then seemed to be sinking down. We were all thrown off our feet by theh shock and huddled crouching in one corner of the cabin. My mistress had the girl baby in her arms, the older girl leaned on my left arm while I held little Eric in my right.

"The explosion seemed to have blown in the skylight over our heads,a nd before we could raise ourselves hot moist ashes began to pour in on us. They came in boiling splattering splashes like moist mud without any pieces of rock. In vain we tried to shield ourselves. The cabin was pitch dark- we could see nothing.

"A sense of suffocation came next, but when the door burst open air rushed in and we revived somewhat. When we could see each other's faces they were covered with black lava, the baby was dying, Rita, the older girl, was in great agony and every part of my body was paining me. A heap of hot mud had collected near us and as Rita put her hand down to raise herself up it was plunged up to the elbow in the scalding stuff.

"The first engineer came, and hearing our moans carried us to the forward deck and there we remained on the burning ship from 8:30 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. The crew was crowded froward, many in a dying condition. The whole city was one mass of roaring flames and the saloon aft as well as the forward part of the ship were burning fiercely.

"My mistress lay on the deck in a collapsed state. The little boy was already dead. The lady was collected and resigned, handed me some money and told me to take Rita to her aunt, and sucked a piece of ice before she died.

(Clara King, nurse to the children of the Clement Stokes family of Gramercy Park, NYC)

The Roraima continued to burn for at least a day after the eruption. She eventually sank by the stern in 165 feet of water, where she remains. Clara King was still alive, in Barbados, as recently as 1945 and was likely- along with Rita Stokes -to have been the final survivor of Pelee and St. Pierre.

Jim Kalafus

The Clement Stokes family, of whom only Marguerite (Rita) survived, consisted of Mary Stokes, 36, and her children Marguerite, 8, Eric,4, and Olga, 3. Natives of Barbados, they had immigrated, along with Mr. Stokes, to the United States in 1899 residing at first on Prospect Place in Brooklyn and then near Gramercy Park in Manhattan. Clara King, 26 in 1902, had been in the Stokes' employ since at least 1899 and had come to the US with them.

rob scott

while these are NOT fun reads, I enjoy reading these historic disasters of which I was previously unaware and got a lot from this one too ;) I enjoyed writing my paraphrasing (my words but for author quotes) in the Royal Wreck on Welch rocks, down lower in the Other ships list :D - and I can see you got a lot out of your writing this one. - I read on the Halifax explosion recently and this one sounds a bit like that one
- these are quite eyeopening stories what?!

Jim Kalafus

Thanks, Rob! Yes, these accounts were eye-opening to me when I first read them back in the early 1980s. Until that point, what little I found pertaining to St. Pierre emphasised that there were only two survivors, so it was a surprise to learn that there were at least 15 long accounts written by people who were only two-or-three hundred feet from the city when it was destroyed and who, in my eyes, count as survivors as well.



Nicolas Roughol

Thanks for your post Jim, these events are all too familiar to me, as I used to live in Martinique from 1987 to 1990. The St Pierre destruction is very vivid in the minds of all the people there, not just those who live in today's St Pierre.

For the record, only one person survived the destruction of St Pierre, aprt from those few people who were on shores. He was a prisoner, called Cyparis, being held in the city's jail, which happened to be somewhat of an underground facility. He was seriously burned all over his body but was found and rescued. Today Cyparis's jail ruins are part of the historic memorial tour...

A very famous French ship, still afloat today, also managed to escape St Pierre that day. She was "Belem". This ship is the last survivor of French merchant sailing ships, launched in 1896.
View picture

Jim Kalafus

Hello Nicolas! Do you have any accounts from the Belem's time in St. Pierre? I had no idea she was there that morning.

Known to have been in the harbor on May 8th, and lost, were the liner Roraima (I've seen video of her wreck on the harbor floor) which left eleven survivors out of 68 aboard; the cable ship Grappler which was lost with all hands; the ferry Diamant which was at the quay in St. Pierre and left one survivor; the schooner E.J. Morse, the Bark Albanese; the French vessels Tamaya and Misti; The Canadian; The Raisinier; The Sacro Cuore; the Dahlia; The Nord America; The L.W. Morton and the Clementina. If any of these ships left survivors their accounts were not recorded. The Italian vessel Teresa lo Vico was destroyed but left a handful of survivors including the captain's wife.

The Nord America's companion vessel, Orsalina, was in St. Pierre until May 7th at which point her captain grew so concerned about the activity from Mont Pelee that he sailed with a cargo only half loaded and without permission despite the ramifications of what such an act would do to his career.

Regarding survivors: five were found in the city. A servant named Laurent was found in the basement of Monsieur Gabriel. Before she died a few days later in Fort de France she gave an account of lying in the ruins with the dying Gabriel family. A woman named Filotte (complete name never given) was found "burned head to toe" in a basement on the same day as Madame Laurent but was in no condition to give an account. She died soon after being removed from the basement. A girl named d'Ifrile was found near the waterfront and gave an account of trying to reach the Cathedral before being overcome by the heat, but she too died of her burns in Fort de France. A cobbler named Leon Compere-Leandre who lived in the far reaches of the city also survived. He was outside of his residence when the explosion came and managed to make it indoors and into a bedroom with several members of the Delavaud family before the gas cloud reached them. He lost consciousness and when he awoke the Delavauds were all either dead or dying. He survived as late as 1939. In the Roxelaine Valley a woman by the surname of Montferrier survived but lost her family. Ciparis was the only person to survive in the heart of the city. I believe that he died in 1929.

Two other accounts bear note. The telegraph operator from St. Pierre sent out an "unintelligible" transmission recorded at 8:02 a.m. in Fort de France, and a Fort de France businessman who was on the phone with someone in St. Pierre heard his friend "scream" as the line went dead a little after 8 a.m.

Attached is the only known photo of the explosion. The village of Precheur, shielded by an outcropping of Pelee lies in the foreground. In the background, the cloud of gas can be seen moving down the valley into the city, which lies off to the right.


Jim Kalafus

And more...this site is really good and I'd not read this account before!


Of particular interest are the photos showing St. Pierre, once referred to as "The Little Paris of the Western Hemisphere" as she was before the disaster. A city of much charm, it is a bit disturbing to look at the ca. 1900 photos and realise that chances are good that literally no one in them survived past May 8, 1902.

and here is part of the account by survivor Compere-Leandre:

"I felt a terrible wind blowing, the earth began to tremble, and the sky suddenly became dark. I turned to go into the house, with great difficulty climbed the three or four steps that separated me from my room, and felt my arms and legs burning, also my body. I dropped upon a table. At this moment four others sought refuge in my room, crying and writhing with pain, although their garmets showed no sign of having been touched by flame. At the end of 10 minutes one of these, the young Delavaud girl, aged about 10 years, fell dead; the others left. I got up and went to another room, where I found the father Delavaud, still clothed and lying on the bed, dead. He was purple and inflated, but the clothing was intact. Crazed and almost overcome, I threw myself on a bed, inert and awaiting death. My senses returned to me in perhaps an hour, when I beheld the roof burning. With sufficient strength left, my legs bleeding and covered with burns, I ran to Fonds-Sait-Denis, six kilometers from St. Pierre."

Jim Kalafus

and finally:


This site is in French but has some great views of the wreck two days after the explosion, as well as photos and illustrations of the Roraima as a dive site. Recommeded reading, even if your French is not the best.

Jim Kalafus

And here is a great site, again in French but easy to follow even you do not read the language, with a lot of wreck photographs taken during dives including some interior views. Note at the top of the site the map marking the locations of other wrecks from May 8th.

I just bought a snapshot of the Roraima, from a collector, taken after the fire was out but before she sank around May 10th. Will add it to the site as soon as it arrives.


Jim Kalafus

Correction: I listed the Dahlia as a 1902 wreck. She was, in fact, lost in the 1950s.

Jim Kalafus

Here's an oddity that came my way this afternoon. This letter was mailed from St. Pierre on April 24, 1902, the first 'major' day in the eruption cycle that culminated in the death of the entire city on May 8th. Prior to this, Pelee had been 'grumbling' at intervals since mid-1901, but on the morning of the 24th the townspeople of St. Pierre awoke to discover that it was 'snowing' volcanic ash. The following day, the volcano behaved in a more frightening manner, 'detonating' several times and making the earth shake~ so this letter, which arrived in Paris on May 9th (one day after the death of its writer) represents the final 'normal' moments its creator ever knew. Ch. Mendel, to whom it was mailed, noted "le souvenir de la terrible eruption de la montagne Pelee' on the reverse side.

St pierre envelope
Michael H. Standart

Michael H. Standart

Jim, was any serious attempt made to evacuate the area before the Big One happened? I've seen the sort of carnage a volcano can do first hand with nothing more then a shower of ash. (The Mount Pinatubo eruption in the Phillipines back in 1990.) To say it was sobering to see nothing but collapsed buildings and a coating of gray as far as the eye could see is an understatement. I wouldn't have needed a lot of persuasion to try and be somewhere else!

Jim Kalafus

>was any serious attempt made to evacuate the area before the Big One happened?

No...and the story about why there was no organised evacuation has mutated over the years.
Governor Mouttet, who lost his life in St. Pierre on May 8th is generally made out to be the villain of this piece...gothic tales of his sending out troops to trap people trying to escape the city and forcing the newspapers to print reassuring articles in the face of impending doom, all to protect a coming election, have been central to the St. Pierre story since the "Government is always evil" days of the 1970s but, in truth, what happened in St. Pierre reminds me a lot of what happened last summer in New Orleans.....

St. Pierre was, and is, ringed by extremely steep mountains. In 1902 there was only one road between St.Pierre and Fort de France, the mountainous, winding, and snake ridden Trace Road. Most people travelled between the two cities on the ferrries Diamant, Topaze, and Rubis which- if crowded- could carry perhaps 100 each. So, during the final days leading up to the catastrophe Mouttet, and the rest of the government was confronted with the question "How do we get them out?" The physically fit could walk the 13 miles along the Trace Road, but what of the others? There was no train, no automobiles and no realistic way of evacuating 25,000-30,000 people, and what effects they chose to carry, quickly.

The question arose, as well, "Where do we put them?" During the final week, people from outlying towns refugeed into St. Pierre in numbers far greater than the number of those who were leaving for Fort de France. Reports survive of people sleeping in the streets and parks, and on doorsteps, and wherever they could in the doomed city. Mouttet and the entire government were left with the problem of sheltering and feeding a displaced city of 30,000 at a moment's notice.

Another question they pondered was "what if nothing happens?" Although Pelee was rumbling, and disgorging clouds of sulphur and ash, Mouttet had to have realised that if he ordered St. Pierre evacuated, asked the French Navy to intercede and send whatever ships they had in the area to aid in the evacuation, and forced the physically fit to walk 13 miles through a mountainous jungle after abandoning all of their worldly possession, and then Pelee went back to sleep, he'd be "Mouttet the Idiot" and his promising career would be hindered.

So, nothing of note was done.

In the final three days, false hope was raised. A huge river of volcanic mud was expelled from Pelee and surged down the valley of the Riviere Blanche, burying the Guerin factory complex (and all of its workers) 80 feet deep and sweeping 400 citizens of Precheur to their deaths. In St.Pierre word was spread that even if Pelee did 'explode,' geography would channel the destruction down the Riviere Blanche valley and away from the city. Word also arrived that Soufriere had erupted massively (in fact, it had, with hundreds of deaths)and that was seen as reassuring, on the theory that the pressure that was driving Pelee to erupt must have been diverted through Soufriere. And, in fact, Pelee did seem to have calmed down a bit on the final full day that anyone survived in St. Pierre.

The story about Mouttet and the newspapers conspiring to "calm the electorate" is true- but it is only one minor thread in the fiasco and has been granted too much importance since the 1970s. here is the final article from the final newspaper issued in St. Pierre:


The exodus from Saint Pierre is steadily increasing. From morning to evening and through the whole night one sees only hurrying people, carrying packages, trunks, and children, and directing their course to Fonds-St.Denis, Morne-d'Orange, Carbet and elsewhere. The steamers of the Compagnie Girard are no longer empty. to give an idea of this mad flight we give the following figures. The number of passengners which on the line of Fort de France was ordinarily eighty a day has risen since three days to three hundred.

We confess that we cannot understand this panic. Where better could one be than in St. Pierre? Do those who invade Fort de France believe that they would be better off there than here should the earth begin to quake? This is a foolish error against which the populace should be warned.

Mouttet and his wife Maria left their children in Fort de France and traveled to St. Pierre, so that he could get a better grasp of the situation, on the final full day. Pelee marked their arrival, ominously, by expelling boulders large enough to be seen by the naked eye from three miles away.

Clara Prentiss, the wife of the American Consul at St. Pierre, wrote a final letter home to her sister, Alice Fry, shortly before her death:

"I write under the glomiest of impressions, although I hope I exaggerate the situation. Thomas laughs, but I sense that he is full of anxiety. He has stopped telling me to leave, knowing that I cannot go alone. The heat today is suffocating. When we came out of mass. I saw that many people were obliged to wear wet handkerchiefs to ward off the sulphur fumes. Even though there have been no fresh ashfalls for some hours, the air is oppressive. Your nose burns. I ask myself if we are all going to die asphyxiated. I wonder what tomorrow will bring.

The atmosphere in town is strained. There are outbreaks of stealing and fighting. Troops are on hand to keep order, and Thomas says that they are succeeding. Yet most people, in spite of it all, are content to stay in town. This morning there was a small exodus from here, but now it has stopped. People sleep where they can, in the streets, and even against the walls of our home. They wait, as we do, for the arrival of the Governor's Commission. It is a curious thing, but I cannot share their relief at the coming of the Commission. How will the Commission end the dust that enters everywhere and burns our eyes?

Thursday, May 8th, was Ascension Thursday, a day off, and although the ferries leaving St. Pierre were not crowded, those entering were, with people using their free day to "see the volcano."
As the Diamant entered St. Pierre, a man named Rene Bonneville waved from it to his father who was departing St. Pierre aboard the Topaze. Within 45 minutes, the younger Bonneville and all but one aboard the Diamant would die.

Ferdinand Clerc, who represented "old money St. Pierre" chose a singularly fortunate moment to evacuate the town. A few minutes before 8AM, sensing that something was very wrong, Clerc gathered his wife and four children and fled toward the mountains in the family coach. They completed their journey on foot,and at a run. From atop Mont Parnasse, they were in a prime position to see, and survive, the destruction of their city. Veronique Clerc later wrote;

"We saw a sea of fire cutting through the billowing black smoke and advancing along the ground towards the town. What could we do? We held each other close. We wanted to die together, and we were waiting for death. It was a moment of anguish. Fear, lack of air, I know not what was the cause of the fearful choking in my throat. It was raining stones and mud. St. Pierre was doomed. Our friends were doomed. Our world was doomed.

Here is a photo, which arrived by mail today, showing the Quebec Line's Roraima after she was hit by the 'hurricane of fire' while moored a few hundred feet off shore at St. Pierre. 11 survived of the 68 on board.

Roraima jk
Michael H. Standart

Michael H. Standart

>>No...and the story about why there was no organised evacuation has mutated over the years.<<

A pity, but the numbers you mooted made it impractical from the start. Stinks when the deck is stacked against you like that. That photo of the Roraima is sobering to say the least. I'm amazed anyone survived that at all.