A pyroclastic flow is a phenomenon associated with volcanic eruptions, a rapidly moving cloud of hot gas and volcanic material which pass along the ground at speeds as high as 60 miles per hour, or 100 kilometres per hour, and some have been recorded at 450 miles per hour, or 700 kilometres per hour. The word itself is derived from the Greek words pyro (fire) and klastos (broken). The ancient Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum were devoured by pyroclastic flows in 79 AD.
When a pyroclastic flow meets a body of water, the water is turned into hot steam in an explosive instant which can send plumes of steam and ash over a mile into the sky. It is not the case, therefore, that a ship off-shore is safe from an on-coming pyroclastic flow. Not even if its a busy cableship.
Cableship of the Caribbean
The Grappler was built in 1880 by James Laing & Co. of Sunderland as a cable repair ship for the West India & Panama Telegraph Company. A little over 200-feet in length, or 60 metres, and coming in at 868 gross registered tons, it was based in the Windward Islands.
It spent twenty years attending to the submarine cables in its area. Many of the crew were natives of the island of St Thomas, from which it operated. Its career was mostly uneventful, although it had its moments. In May 1898, during the Spanish-American War, it was the Grappler that first reported to the Press the capture of the Spanish ship Rita by the auxiliary cruiser USS Yale. The Rita had been carrying stores from Fort-de-France, Martinique, to Porto Rico. The Yale had been the Inman Line passenger liner City of Paris, and went back to being a passenger liner after the war. (Random fact: in early 1902, having been re-named Philadelphia, the passenger liner hosted Guglielmo Marconi who sent and received wireless signals to test the distance at which his system could work.)
On Thursday 8th May, 1902, the Grappler was off St Pierre, Martinique. Its master was Captain A. J. Boreham, whilst its chief electrician was Mr W. J. Murphy, temporarily assigned to the Grappler from the Eastern Telegraph Company. Also aboard were Mr E. Boys (1st officer), Mr E. J. Calcut (2nd officer), Mr T. Holland (3rd officer), Mr A. Meggs (purser), Mr J. Marshall (1st engineer), Mr E. R. Broome (2nd engineer), Mr J. T. Torry (3rd engineer), and Mr D. R. Young (4th engineer), as well as Mr A. Smart (jointer).
The cableship’s task was to restore a cable and it was working opposite the Guerin estate. The cable hut of the shore-end was at the foot of Mont Pelée. That morning, there were some 17 other ships close-by, including the bark Tayama, the steamer Roddam, the schooner E. J. Morse, and the ferry Diamant. A liner of the Quebec Line called the Roraima was coming to anchor.
Eve of the Eruption
St Pierre was described as the ‘Paris of the Caribbean’, and over the small city rose Mont Pelée, its peak hidden by mist. For several days, there had been signs the volcanic Mont Pelée was not as dormant as many believed. Monday 5th May saw light ash falling on the city and dead fish in the Mouillage River. A flood of black volcanic mud was seen rolling slowly towards the sea. That day, the Guerin Sugar Works was overwhelmed by a flood of water and mud. This flood buried the Sugar Works and then capsized the Guerin family’s yacht which was anchored just off-shore (not far from the cable hut, in fact). At around 1pm, the sea receded some 320 feet, or 100 metres, before suddenly rushing back. The electric lights of St Pierre went out as waterpower for the dynamos fell due to damage to a dam. Whilst people living in the surrounding villages fled their homes for the apparent safety of St Pierre, the residents of St Pierre were less flighty. They were, however, increasingly nervous.
The governor of Martinique, Mouttet, with his wife, as well as a party of geologists and a company of soldiers, arrived from Fort-de-France on Wednesday 7th May. The geologists looked towards the mountain and decided that, in their expert opinion, all was well, and then they went back to Fort-de-France the same day. The governor was due to return the next day on the 3,300-ton protected cruiser Suchet, but the warship was still at Fort-de-France, delayed by engine trouble.
Many listened to the geologists, but some residents were concerned enough to leave. The steamers which ran between St Pierre and Fort-de-France were busy. The normal passenger traffic was around 80 per day, but now they averaged 300. But even as some chose to leave, the local newspaper printed articles pointing towards scientific reports claiming there was no danger of an eruption. ‘Where can one be better off than at St Pierre?’ it asked.
That night was very still and quiet, according to the residents of Carbet, a village close to St Pierre, on the other side of the ridge that would save them. Early next morning, the American consul in St Pierre, Mr Thomas T. Prentiss, was seen sitting on his veranda by a friend who called on him to leave. ‘Oh, you are just merely a little scared,’ replied the consul. ‘There is no need of anyone going away.’ The friend thought it better to be safe than sorry and went on his way.
There were an estimated 30,000 people in St Pierre that morning.
Mont Pelée Erupts
At 7:55am, a telegraph clerk in Fort-de-France was listening to a final series of messages from his colleague in St Pierre when the line went dead very suddenly. Mont Pelée had exploded, and down its flank came a pyroclastic flow. St Pierre and its 30,000 residents were in its way.
The Grappler was the first ship to catch fire. We do not know what the last minutes aboard the Grappler were like as no-one survived. But we can surmise based on the experiences of witnesses on another ship, the Roraima, which according to one survivor was shielded from the full blast by the Grappler. A ‘fiery cloud’ came down on the Roraima, and stones and hot mud and flame rained down on the deck. There was a roar and the sea rose to crash into the shipping, and the ships heeled over as a great wave washed over them. Masts snapped, rigging tore, boats were crushed, and crew were swept away or burnt.
Image: Mont Pelée eruption, 1902
Witnesses say the Grappler was struck, burst into flames, and turned over. Another account has it the cable-ship was lifted out of the water by the blast, only to be ‘snapped back’ by its anchor before sinking. Those who were not burned alive in the first few seconds would have been smashed by volcanic debris. Those who lived through this would have drowned in boiling water as the cable-ship sank under the force of the pyroclastic flow.
A pall of darkness lay over St Pierre for a day, and then it lifted, leaving piles of debris and a shroud of volcanic ash. The news of the disaster spread. The 17-year-old daughter of the Grappler’s engineer worked at the telegraph office in St Thomas and was working as an operator at the time of the eruption. It is said she was the one who first read off the message. She fainted. Once she had revived, she set to work relaying the news. The telegraph office became besieged by friends and relatives desperate for news.
The cruiser Suchet reached St Pierre and sought for survivors. The French cable repair ship Pouyer-Quertier (1,396 GRT) brought 450 survivors from nearby village Le Prechuer to Fort-de-France. RMS Solent (1,903 GRT) and RMS Kennet (827 GRT) went to Martinique with supplies and medical staff. The Apollo-class protected cruiser HMS Indefatigable (3,400 tons) hurried from Trinidad to St Vincent (which was suffering from its own volcanic eruption) with stores and the Pearl-class protected cruiser HMS Pallas (2,575 tons) left Jamaica on a similar mission.
There had been 30,000 people in St Pierre at 7:55am on Thursday morning. The heat of the pyroclastic flow would have exceeded 1,000 °C; it took something like three minutes to destroy of the city and its people. There were only a handful survivors, including a prisoner, a housemaid, a ten-year old girl, and a shoemaker, and three of those survivors died shortly afterwards.
Of the 18 ships off St Pierre, only the steamer Roddam escaped, and even then there were fires on board and dead passengers on deck. The Quebec Line steamer Roraima burned for days before sinking. Its wreck is well-known to divers.
The cableship Grappler was gone, along with all aboard. The only item recovered from the cableship was a portable desk from the cableship’s office which was reportedly found off Guadeloupe.
Image: aftermath of Mont Pelée Eruption, 1902
Duncan S. Mackenzie, RITTech, AMBCS
Digital Collections Officer, PK Porthcurno
Header image: Cableship Grappler