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The Last Days of St. Pierre: The Volcanic Disaster That Claimed 30,000 Lives Hardcover – February 1, 2002

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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 Zebrowski'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.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

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
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Rutgers University Press (February 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0813530415
  • ISBN-13: 978-0813530413
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #928,029 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful By David Zebrowski on April 5, 2002
Format: Hardcover
As the author's son who accompanied him to Martinique to do the research for this book, I need to take some minor exceptions to the review (below) posted by one Marc Bernstein. Last Days is most certainly not a novel (as he labels it). The book identifies its sources on a chapter-by-chapter basis, most of them publications dating from 1902-1903, supplemented by our own field observations (we rejected quite a few of the contemporary descriptions as geographically or physically impossible, for instance). If the book happens to read like a novel, that was precisely my father's intent. But the characters are all historically authentic and their stories are well-researched and quite true.
We, and the publisher, were well-aware of the discrepancies in the spellings of some of the place-names. We used the spellings that appeared in the century-old English-language sources (George Kennan's 1903 use of AcierErather than Assier,Efor instance). Inconsistencies in spelling are a common occurence; drive, for instance, from France to Basel, Switzerland, and
even today you'll see the spelling BaleEon road signs on the French side of the border.
As for the explanations of vocanic phenomena, they were purposely kept nontechnical. The intent was not to tell the reader everything that is known today, but rather to examine what pockets of ignorance aggravated the 1902 disaster. One of the themes of this book is that scientific inquiry is driven by ignorance, and because at the time of the catastrophe very little was known about volcanoes, a lot of people began asking a lot of scientifically fruitful questions.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By K. Bass-Petersen on December 13, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Length: 4:15 Mins
"I believe it's clear, gentlemen, that we must reach a conclusion. And in my view, we have but two alternatives. We either organize an evacuation, or we do not. If we do, we create immense hardships not only for the forty thousand evacuated, but also for the seventeen thousand citizens of Fort-de-France who must cope with the presence of so many refugees. But if we do not evacuate, we create no more discomfort than Mother Nature herself has already delivered to the people of this fair city and the surrounding villages. If we do evacuate, many personal possessions will be looted or otherwise lost, and the civil upheaval will have effects that continue long after Mont Pelee has returned to slumber. But if we do not evacuate, St. Pierre's citizenry will be on hand to preserve their personal properties and possessions. If we do evacuate, we will need to provide food and public services in Fort-de-France. But if we do not evacuate, we will need to provide no greater a quantity of food and services here in St. Pierre. So, I ask you, gentlemen, is this really an issue?"
- Colonel Gerbault
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Christine E. Peard on February 6, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
At last we find a scientist who is able to portray history with a truly human face! The combination is so rare and exhilarating that upon completing this book one feels as if they've lost a close friend in the character of Father Mary. Zebrowski is able to bring him back to life for us and allow him to teach us a very valuable lesson in compassion for our fellow man. The spotlight is focused on an indifferent French government who chose to ignore the obvious signs of impending disaster and the heroic attempt of one man to avert it. A truly moving story with a moral lesson that should become required reading for children of all ages!
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Sandy Mansfield on March 18, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Dr. Zabrowski paints a compelling picture that encompasses the policical, economic, cultural and social life and times of St. Pierre and Martinique a century ago. This amazing scientific book captures the reader much as you might expect of an intrieguing substantative novel. One's fund of knowledge is easily and enjoyablly advanced with regard to natural disasters, human behavior, history, etc. The scope of his research left no stone unturned to the point that one can almost imagine walking along the cobble stone streets in the St. Pierre of yesterday. Thunderous Mt. Pelee as well as the people and political characters come alive in living color. This author's ability to captivate is unequalled as he recounts scientifically and with historical accuracy these century old events. This would make a good movie. I will eagerly await more from Dr. Ernest Zebrowski.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Boris Behncke on February 3, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This review is unusual in that it compares two books that were published nearly at the same time and both deal with the same event: the devastating 1902 eruption of Montagne Pelée volcano on the Caribbean island of Martinique.

The first of these books is Alwyn Scarth's "LA Catastrophe: The Eruption of Mount Pelée, the Worst Volcanic Disaster of the 20th Century", the second is Ernest Zebrowski's "The Last Days of St. Pierre: The Volcanic Disaster that Claimed 30,000 Lives", published just four months earlier. Both books mark the 100th anniversary of the eruption that virtually exterminated the town of Saint-Pierre along with nearly all of its inhabitants. Both fulfill an important mission: putting an end to the incredible amount and degree of misinformation veiling that tragic event to the present day.

The 1902 Montagne Pelée (commonly translated into Mount Pelée in the English literature) eruption produced a phenomenon called pyroclastic flows (and/or surges), which had until then not been recognized by geologists - although today we know that they occur quite frequently. Just as I write this review (early February 2006), pyroclastic flows are spilling down the slopes of Mount St. Augustine volcano in Alaska. They were produced by nearly all the famous explosive eruptions in history, including Mount St. Helens (1980), Pinatubo (1991), Krakatau (1883), and Vesuvius (79 A.D.).

However, there was no common conscience of pyroclastic flows among scientists and people living on volcanoes in early 1902, when Montagne Pelée stirred and gradually came back to life. What was known at the time about volcanoes was limited to lava flows, ash falls, and tsunamis (the latter are rarely caused by volcanic eruptions).
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