Today I’m going to tell you a moving story that I stumbled across while researching the mountains of Los Nevados after my trip to Colombia over the new year. It concerns a 13-year old girl called Omayra Sanchez whose plight came to worldwide attention following the eruption of Nevado del Ruiz in 1985.
Nevado del Ruiz (5,325m) is an active volcano in Colombia’s Cordillera Central mountain range, and the highest mountain in Los Nevados National Park. At the time of my visit, it was sufficiently active that it was considered too dangerous to climb. On my first evening in Los Nevados, we observed it belching gas from a hillside above our lodge.
In fact, on 13 November 1985 Nevado del Ruiz was responsible for South America’s deadliest ever volcano eruption, when the town of Armero 50 kilometres to the east was wiped out and as many as 25,000 people lost their lives.
The incident was doubly tragic because authorities had ample warning of an imminent eruption and its likely impact, but failed to act.
As early as December 1984, three significant earthquakes within 30km of Nevado del Ruiz’s summit led to increased volcanic activity. This included the formation of a new crater within the existing main crater, the Crater Arenas, which was observed by geologists in January 1985.
In March a UN seismologist visited and observed a 150m vapour column erupting from the mountain which he concluded was a typical precursor of “an eruption of magnitude”. Earthquakes continued through 1985 and in September a state of alert was declared after a small eruption.
In October, geologists published a hazard map that indicated that Armero could be completed flooded in the event of a major eruption. The map met with criticism for being “too alarming”.
In fact, the reality was much worse. Glaciated volcanoes such as Nevado del Ruiz are especially dangerous because the heat from an eruption melts the ice and causes lahars – deadly rivers of mud, ice, rocks and other volcanic debris. These travel rapidly and wipe out all in their path with a wall of water and debris.
And this is exactly what happened. The first eruption on 13 November occurred at 3pm, but when seismic activity returned to normal soon afterwards, authorities decided not to initiate an evacuation.
The volcano erupted again at 9pm and this is when the lahars stated racing down the mountain. 16% of Nevado del Ruiz’s surface ice was melted, releasing 43 million tonnes of water. This mixed with ash, sediment, rocks and trees during its journey east.
Sadly, a storm that evening knocked out communications, and residents were not warned of the approaching lahars until 11pm. The lahars reached the town at 11.30, burying it under 5m of thick mud that was travelling at 8 metres per second. These rivers raged through the town for the next two hours, by which time 85% of the town was buried.
Over 20,000 of Armero’s 29,000 inhabitants died, but not all of them immediately. There were many survivors who died over the next 24 hours because rescue services could not get to them. The soft mud was impossible for anyone to cross without sinking in. Neither could it support the weight of machinery that might have helped extract survivors.
One of these survivors was 13-year-old Omayra Sanchez, whose hand was spotted protruding from a pile of debris. Rescuers cleared much of the debris from around her, but they realised that her legs were trapped beneath the collapsed roof of her house, and they could not pull her out without severing them. The rescue was complicated by the fact that much of her body was underwater, and whenever rescuers pulled, the water flooded around her, risking death by drowning. Divers discovered that her legs were trapped beneath a brick door and her dead aunt’s arms were clinging to her.
Over the course of the next three days, she was given food and drink and even agreed to be interviewed and photographed. She was positive at first, but during the third day she started hallucinating. By the time French photojournalist Frank Fournier arrived on the scene and captured an iconic photograph, her eyes were red, her face swollen, and her hands whitened from the onset of gangrene and hypothermia. She died three hours later.
Fournier’s photograph was published across the world and came to symbolise the failure of authorities, first in preparing for an unfolding tragedy, and then in assisting victims who might have been saved. Omayra’s father also died in the tragedy, but her mother and brother survived. Fournier’s photo became World Press Photo of the Year.
Colombia was a highly unstable country in 1985, torn apart by years of civil war. A week before the eruption, 75 hostages, including 11 judges, died during an armed siege at the Palace of Justice in Bogotá. The country is much more stable now. I have visited twice in the last few years and found it to be one of the more developed South American countries.
But Nevado del Ruiz is still a serious threat for up to half a million people in nearby cities, towns and villages. It continues to be active, and another larger eruption remains a possibility. While I have reported elsewhere that Colombia’s glaciers are receding quickly, they are still substantial on Nevado del Ruiz, and lahars could be deadly again. Let’s hope that authorities are better prepared if the unthinkable happens again.
To learn more, there is an interesting photographic story map about the Armero tragedy here.
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