A glance at the stone cell that Ludger Sylbaris once occupied may elicit pity for the man—until you learn that this building saved his life.
On May 7, 1902, the town troublemaker ended up in solitary confinement after being arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct. The next day, apocalypse came to Martinique.
The Mt. Pelee volcano just north of St Pierre had been showing signs of erupting for over a week. Since modern vulcanology did not yet exist, no one knew what to expect. In fact, people had been planning to have a picnic on the volcano just three days before the eruption, but had to cancel due to the ash that was starting to come from the volcano. Just before the volcano erupted, thousands came from the countryside into the city to seek refuge. That was a big mistake.
Pelée sent a cloud of superheated gas and dust racing toward the city. Within a single minute the 1,075 degree pressure wave had flattened nearly every building in the city of St. Pierre. Anyone unlucky enough to be in its way instantly caught fire and burned to death. Even those in shelters were suffocated as the wave of super heated gas burned up the oxygen and replaced it with deadly gases. People's lungs were incinerated from the inside when they took even a single breath. Nearly all 30,000 residents of the island were killed instantly, and the city burned for days afterward. But Ludger Sylbaris survived.
Trapped in his cell, Sylbaris felt the intense heat from the 1,000-degree pressure wave as ash came flying in through the tiny slot in the door. Suffering from burns and desperate to cool down, Sylbaris urinated on his clothes and stuffed them into the slot. It was just enough to save him. Four days later, rescuers freed him from his prison.
Having survived the worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century, Sylbaris became a celebrity, even touring the world with Barnum & Bailey’s circus. Posters billed him as "the only living object that survived in the 'Silent City of Death.'"
Today, the cell which saved Ludgers life can be visited in St. Pierre. Once the cultural capital of Martinique, the devastation of the eruption left its mark and today the town is now home to fewer than 5,000 people.
Since all records were destroyed and all witnesses killed by the eruption what Ludger was being imprisoned for is a matter of speculation. Ludger later told everyone it was because of a fight, but the cell he was in would have been where someone accused of a more serious crime such as murder might have been held. While the eruption was doomsday for the town of St Pierre, it may have been Ludger Sylbaris' savior.
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