June 16, 2008 – Thursday marks 60 years since the 1948 Castries Fire devoured 75% of Castries and rendered 2,000 homeless.
The fire alarm sounded shortly after 8:00 p.m. and by 8:30 p.m. the fire was out of control; so that for full 10-hours the fire spreading wherever the wind listed. After the first half-hour, hardly less than 4 to 6 buildings were ablaze at the same time and very often traveling in different directions. Even if there was water, there would not have been enough equipment to fight a fire of such magnitude. Of course with water and proper equipment the fire could not have progressed so rapidly and spread so widely. Nevertheless, let no one think for a moment that the fire was not fought, for if it were not fought the fire could not have been checked by the St Joseph's Convent on Micoud Street and at 59 St Louis Street and were it not checked at these points, perhaps not a house would have been left standing in the town. The Press and people of Castries have long been reminding Government and the Castries Town Board that water was and still is a number one priority. We have written on diverse occasions in the same strain on the unsatisfactory Castries Water Supply, but the war stringency was trotted out each time as an excuse and as a result for Saint Lucia thewar has not ended. We are still being blitzed by fire.
Excerpts from the West Indian Crusader, July 10, 1948
Years ago a fire-fighting expert visited Saint Lucia and declared that Castries was uniquely sited against fire hazards; it had the sea on two sides and a river on the third. Yet twice in twenty years, Castries has been burnt down; the first, half of its buildings escaped, this time perhaps a quarter . How thoroughly the devouring fire merited that description was evident from the plane as we circled the town before landing. The layout of the streets and the stone outlines of the buildings along them, were as plain as an architectural ground plan; but in the most literal sense, the houses were gutted.
People Were Dazed or Over-confident
One of the first people to whom I spoke described the beginning of the fire progress dramatically. She heard a shout; "Fire", and not thinking for a moment that it was a matter calling for more than the satisfaction of passing curiosity, she went into the street. Then said she, "I saw the flames reaching up and waving in the light breeze, and I heard a crackling sound as though the fire-fiend was saying, I am coming, you cannot escape." In fact the fire, starting from a point in the northeast of the town advanced westward until it reached the docks, then it began to come back by the southern part where it was halted by Columbus Square and by the efforts of some determined workers who drew water from the river.
Whether the people were dazed or over-confident; many did not believe the fire would reach them and merely transferred their belongings to points considered safe; no effective resistance was offered to the fire's advance until the end.
There was little water, inadequate fire-fighting material, and the process of blowing up some buildings to make a gap the fire could not leap, was attempted too late. Had not a heavy rain providentially come, making of the clogged gutters temporary reservoirs of water, the south-eastern quarter of the town would have been a completed a holocaust.
Hundreds Lost All
The financial estimate of loss is $20,000,000 or so. Some of this will be covered by insurance and even though, but a fraction of the total, the amount will give headaches to the insurance companies. But hundreds have lost everything they possessed save life and the clothes they stand up in; houses, furniture, household treasures, little hoards of money - all gone and replacement possible in only a limited material way.
The immediate generosity of Trinidad and other West Indian Islands and of the Americans in Puerto Rico; the assurance of help from London, to say nothing of the charity of Saint Lucians, themselves have made the actual problems of succour less acute. The existence of the huge military buildings at Vigie and o the Morne provided adequate shelter for the homeless.
Marines from H.M.S. Sparrow, Red Cross Personnel, including a valiant contingent from Trinidad, Local Social Workers, Scouts and Guides, members of the Catholic Youth Organization, the St Mary's Collegians directed by the Presentation Brothers, the Presbytery Clergy and Nuns - during and since the ordeal have rendered help such as no annals can adequately record.
The word "annals" turns my thoughts to another loss, incalculable in terms of money, and totally irreplaceable. I refer to historical documents and records. Several of the Government Offices, such as the Education Department, have lost everything. The public library, reputed to possess the best reference sections in the West Indies, has been utterly destroyed. Private scholars like Mr Tom Ferguson have suffered equal loss. Mr. Ferguson's collection of Carib stone implements and other remains was absolutely unique, and his historical papers, bearing on every phase of Saint Lucia's life - civil and military, social and ecclesiastical, simply cannot be reproduced. NEMO takes this opportunity to remind the public that Saint Lucia is
vulnerable to many hazards and though storms are recurrent we need to be prepared for all manner of threats.
Source: Saint Lucia National Archives
For further information contact:
Public Relations Officer – Saint Lucia Fire Service at: 452-2373