St Pierre was a town of some 30,000 inhabitants, lying in a mile-long, crescent-shaped strip in the Martinique Islands, in the Caribbean or West Indies. The city had a grand backdrop: the 4,430 feet high Mount Pelee or ‘bald’ mountain. The mountain lives on but the town has become a part of its fiery history. Mount Pelee is a dormant volcano that erupts once in a while and then lies cold for a long time and without any activity.

It arose from its sleep in 1902 and wiped out St Pierre completely.

The Luckiest Men?
The Luckiest Men? [Illustration by Shinod AP]

Of course the people had no inkling of it. After all Mount Pelee had been lying dormant for ages. The mountain rumbled and puffed steam occasionally.

But on May 8, 1902, after three days of gathering fire, the volcano erupted. The mountain side facing the town was ripped out. It hurled towards the town as a solid wall of flame. The town vanished in a matter of seconds along with its 30,000 inhabitants.

All but two men survived.

One of the two surviviors was a 28-year-old Leon Leandre, a shoemaker. As the volcano exploded he ran inside his house. The shoemaker was saved by an incredible hand of fate; while others around him died after inhaling the sulphurous volcanic gases, his lungs miraculously escaped fatal damage.

The second survivor, ironically, was August Ciparis, a 25-year-old stevedore, who was due to be hanged for murder. He was lodged in a high security prison. The solid walls of the cell protected Ciparis from the wrath of the volcanic flames. Three days after the explosion when the rescue teams entered the city, they released Ciparis.

Ciparis was pardoned and set free. He spent the rest of his life working in a circus where he featured in a side-show attraction called ‘The Prisoner of St Pierre’.