November 13, 1985 The Awful Story of Omayra Sánchez

Omayra Sánchez Garzón was a little girl on this day in 1985, a typical thirteen-year-old and one among many, living in Armero.  There is not enough meanness in all the world, to wish on anyone what this one little girl would endure for the next three days.

Fifty miles from the Colombian capital of Bogotá, the municipality of Armero was once home to 30,000 souls.  Long known as “Colombia’s White City”, Armero was at one time a major cotton producer, seat of the prosperous agricultural region located in the northern Tolima Department, of Colombia.

Today, the place is a ghost town.

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the “Armero Tragedy’, before and after

Some forty miles from Armero, the Nevado del Ruiz Stratovolcano in the Central Andes, is the site of three major eruptive periods since the early Pleistocene era.  The present volcanic cone formed some 150,000 years ago during the present eruptive period.  Known to locals as the “Sleeping Lion”, Nevado del Ruiz had not experienced a major eruption, since 1845.  140 years later, it was hard to imagine the thing presented much of a threat.

The eruption of November 13, 1985 was small by volcanic standards.  For its unsuspecting victims, it was a distinction without a difference.  Much as the ant may fail to notice.  He was crushed by a very small elephant.

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Nevado del Ruiz Stratovolcano

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD was later described in a letter written by Pliny the Younger, describing the catastrophe that killed the philosopher’s uncle.  The “Plinian Eruption” which killed the Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder would be repeated half a world away and some 2,000 years later, as a sleeping lion came to life.

The fast moving clouds of gas and volcanic material came in the dead of night, the “pyroclastic flow” super-heated to 1,000° Fahrenheit and racing  away from the cone at speeds as high as 430 miles-per-hour.  Next came the Lahars, the violent and terrifying mud flow of pyroclastic material, rocky debris and vast quantities of water released by the near-instantaneous melting of the Nevado del Ruiz glacier.  Imagine a wall of rocky mud coming at you at 22mph, only a little slower than Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt’s best 100-meter dash.  Usain Bolt just happens to be the fastest man who ever lived.

Mount Merapi Lahar, Central Java

Lahars flow at depths as great as 460-feet.  Vast, hideous walls of  mud, rock and debris the consistency of wet concrete, speeding down rivers and valleys.  The first of three lahars and the most powerful of that night wiped fourteen towns and villages from the face of the earth, killing as many as 20,000 in Armero, alone.

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Galungung Lahar, Indonesia

Omayra Sánchez Garzón was a little girl on this day in 1985, a typical thirteen-year-old and one among many, living in Armero.  There is not enough meanness in all the world, to wish on anyone what this one little girl would endure for the next three days.

Many years ago, I found myself pinned under a car while working on the engine.  The motor and transmission assembly, free of its mount, swung down and pinned my hand underneath.  It obviously hurt but, more than that, there was the strangest feeling of being…trapped.  Permanently pinned in place like an insect in a child’s science project, entirely denied the power of voluntary movement.  It may as well have been a locomotive, sitting there on my fingers.

Omayra Sánchez suffered her legs to be so trapped, pinned under the collapsed stony structure of her own home, legs entangled in the dead arms of her aunt and submerged up to her neck, in water.

Omayra Sanchez Vignette

The nation of Colombia was a basket case at this time, engaged in a fight for its life with Leftist guerrilla organizations such as the M-19 Democratic Alliance (19th of April Movement), and the FARC.  The Palace of Justice siege of less than a week earlier resulted in the murder of fully half the 25-member Colombian Supreme Court, as the Colombian military mobilized across the capital city of Bogotá.

Rescue efforts on the ground in Armero were frantic, disorganized and mostly local.  Official government assistance was all but, non-existent, pumps altogether unavailable.  Soon even supplies of simple hand tools such as stretchers, shovels and cutting tools, began to give out.  Foreign aid rushed in from nations from around the world but, for most victims, such well-intended help arrived, too late..

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After the lahar passed, Sánchez found herself buried in rubble. She managed to get one hand out of the wreckage as rescuers desperately worked to clear the wood, stone and debris from her upper body.  As the water rose, a tire was placed around her body to keep her from drowning.  Divers attempted to free her legs, but without success.  She was trapped.  Bilateral amputation was considered but there were no means, even to remove the water.  In the end, doctors determined the most humane course was to comfort this child as much as humanly possible, and let her die.

Colombian Ambassador to Portugal Germán Santa María Barragán was at that time a journalist and volunteer in the Armero rescue.  Barragán was with Omayra for much of her last three days.  Sánchez herself remained relatively positive throughout the ordeal, sometimes asking for sweets or soda, sometimes even singing to the journalist.  Some times she cried and others, she prayed.  Stuck there as she was she agreed to be interviewed, her face and her desperate plight quickly becoming known, around the world.

“Colombia and half of the world remained with the bitter sensation that Omayra Sánchez could have been able to continue living after remaining for almost 60 hours trapped from head to toe amidst the rubble of Armero. Her face, her words, and her courage, which streamed throughout the world on television and were a heartbreaking image in the largest newspapers and magazines of the United States and Europe, remained a testimony of accusation against those who could have at the very least made the tragedy less serious. – Germán Santa María Barragán in El Tiempo, November 23, 1985

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The color of her hands make it appear, as Sánchez is wearing gloves.  She isn’t.

French photographer Frank Fournier arrived at dawn on the 16th.  Omayra Sánchez had been in the water for nearly three days and nights by this time.  She was all but abandoned when Fournier first saw her, the whole place eerily silent, save for the occasional scream.

Fournier received vehement backlash for his pictures.  How could he do that, just taking pictures like that, without trying to help.  What are you, some kind of ghoul?  A “vulture”!?  Fournier himself had no means to help this girl, save to use his skill and his camera, to bring her story to the world.  He was a photographer.

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In her final hours, Sánchez began to hallucinate.  She asked the photographer to bring her to school.  She didn’t want to miss her lessons.  She had a math exam.  At one point she even told her rescuers, to go get some rest.

Omayra Sánchez was trapped for sixty hours with only head and shoulders above water, caught in a kneeling position and pinned under massive and impenetrable piles of bricks and masonry.  Her eyes reddened toward the end as her face swelled and her usually brown hands turned from pale, to white.

Two years later, the world held its breath for fifty-eight hours as scores of frantic volunteers worked ’round the clock, to free Baby Jessica from a West Texas well.  Omayra Sánchez waited sixty hours for a rescue, that never arrived.

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Red Cross workers desperately appealed to the Colombian government for a pump, and for help in freeing the trapped girl.  In the end there was no alternative but to stay by her side, and pray.   She died at 10:05am local time, from a combination of gangrene and hypothermia.  Three hours after Fournier took the picture above.

In time, the water subsided.  Those left alive moved away, to Bogotá or to Cali or a few kilometers north to the new town of Armero-Guayabal.  Armero itself is a dead place now, save for a few memorials marking important places such as hospitals, parks, and theaters.  And a small shrine, dedicated to one little girl.

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Little was left of Omayra’s family.  Her father was killed in the collapse.  Her aunt was dead.  Two-thirds of the town in which she had spent her short life, were gone.  85% of Armero itself, had ceased to exist.  From that day to this, the once prosperous “White City” of Colombia, remains a ghost town.

Omayra’s brother survived the disaster, with only the loss of a single digit.  Her mother expressed the forlorn anguish only the parent of a dead child, will ever experience: “It is horrible, but we have to think about the living … I will live for my son, who only lost a finger.”

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November 11, 1921 Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Passing between two lines of French and American officials, Sgt. Younger entered the room, alone.  Slowly, he circled the four caskets, three times, before at last stopping at the third from the left.  “What caused me to stop” he later said, “I don’t know.  It was as though something had pulled me”.  Younger placed the roses on the casket, drew himself to attention, and saluted.  This was the one.

Many years ago, Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck said “If a general war begins, it will be because of some damn fool thing in the Balkans“.

The Chancellor got his damn fool thing on a side street in Sarajevo, when a tubercular 19-year old leveled his revolver and murdered the heir-apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife on June 28, 1914.

In another time and place, such an event could have led to limited conflict. A policing action, in the Balkans.  Instead, mutually entangling national alliances brought mobilization timetables into effect, dictating the movement of men and equipment according to precise and predetermined schedules.

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German troops, leaving for the front

The hippie subculture of the 1960s produced an antiwar slogan based on the title of a McCall’s Magazine article by Charlotte E. Keyes. “Suppose They Gave a War and No One Came.”  In 1914, the coming war Had to happen.  If only because everyone was there.

The cataclysm could have been averted, as late as the last day of July. By the first of August, mutual distrust had brought events past the point of no return. By the time it was over a generation was shattered, a continent destroyed and a new century, set on a difficult and dangerous course.ruins.jpgSome 40 million were killed in the Great War, either that or maimed or simply, vanished.  It was a mind bending number, equivalent to the entire population in 1900 of either France, or the United Kingdom. Equal to the combined populations of the bottom two-thirds of every nation on the planet.  Every woman, man, puppy, boy and girl.

The United States entered the conflict in 1917, suffering casualties of 320,518 in only a few short months.world-war-i-100-year-anniversary-american-entry-legacy-1The idea of honoring the unknown dead from the “War to end all Wars” originated in Europe. Reverend David Railton remembered a rough cross from somewhere on the western front, with the words written in pencil:  “An Unknown British Soldier”.

In November 1916, an officer of the French war memorial association Le Souvenir Français proposed a national-level recognition for the unknown dead of the Great War.  Across the English Channel, Reverend Railton proposed the same.

The two nations performed ceremonies on the first anniversary of Armistice Day, the Unknown Warrior laid to rest at Westminster Abbey on November 11, 1920.  La Tombe du Soldat Inconnu was simultaneously consecrated under the Arc de Triomphe with the actual burial taking place, the following January.

Left to Right:  Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey, London.  La Tombe du Soldat Inconnu. lArc de Triomphe, Paris.

That was the year, the United States followed Great Britain and France in honoring her own, unknown dead. Four unidentified bodies were selected from the Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Somme and St. Mihiel cemeteries and carefully examined, lest there be any clues to identity. The four were then transported to the Hôtel de Ville at Châlons-sur-Marne, and placed in a makeshift chapel.

Six soldiers were invited to act as pallbearers, each man a highly decorated and respected member of his own unit.  Outside the chapel, Major Harbold of the Graves Registration Office handed a large spray of pink and white roses to twice-wounded Sergeant Edward F. Younger, of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).  It was he who would perform the final selection.9664b-10-24-selection2bof2bworld2bwar2bi2bunknown2bsoldierPassing between two lines of French and American officials, Sgt. Younger entered the room, alone.  Slowly, he circled the four caskets, three times, before at last stopping at the third from the left.  “What caused me to stop” he later said, “I don’t know.  It was as though something had pulled me“.  Younger placed the roses on the casket, drew himself to attention, and saluted.  This was the one.

The body was transferred to a black casket bearing the inscription:  “An Unknown American who gave his life in the World War” and transported to the protected cruiser USS Olympia.

Flags at half-mast with stern bedecked with flowers, Commodore George Dewey’s former flagship during the Battle of Manila Bay, received the precious cargo and returned to the United States, arriving in the Navy Yard in Washington DC on November 9, 1921. There the flag draped casket was solemnly transferred to the United States Army, and placed under guard of honor on the catafalque which had borne the bodies of three slain Presidents: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley.Unknown_Soldier_at_the_Washington_Navy_Yard.jpgOn November 11, the casket was removed from the Rotunda of the Capitol and escorted under military guard to the amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery. In a simple ceremony, President Warren G. Harding bestowed upon this unknown soldier of the Great War, the nation’s highest military decorations.  The Medal of Honor.  The Distinguished Service Cross.

Special representatives of foreign nations then bestowed, each in turn, his nation’s highest military decoration.  The Croix de Guerre of Belgium.  The English Victoria Cross. Le Medaille Militaire & Croix de Guerre of France.  The Italian Gold Medal for Bravery. The Romanian Virtutes Militara.  The Czechoslavak War Cross.  The Polish Virtuti Militari.

tomb-soldier-in-snowWith three salvos of artillery, the rendering of Taps and the National Salute, the ceremony was brought to a close and the 12-ton marble cap placed over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  The west facing side bears this inscription:

“Here Rests In
Honored Glory
An American Soldier
Known But To God”

Two years later, a civilian guard was placed at the tomb of the unknown.  A permanent Military guard took its place in 1926 and there remains, to this day.

In 1956, President Dwight David Eisenhower signed a bill to select and pay tribute to the unknown dead of WW2 and the American war in Korea. Selection and interment of these Unknowns took place in 1958.

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United States Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie

The Unknown from the American war in Vietnam was selected on May 17, 1984, but wouldn’t remain unknown, for long.

Advances in mitochondrial DNA led to the exhumation and identification of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie of St. Louis, Missouri, shot down near An Lộc, in 1972.

The Tomb of the Unknown from the Vietnam conflict remains empty.  It is unlikely any future war is capable of producing a truly “Unknown”.

So it is through bitter cold and scorching heat, through hurricanes and blizzards and irrespective of day or night or whether Arlington is open or closed, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier stands under guard.

This Guard of Honor is performed by a carefully selected elite body of the 3rd Infantry Division.  The “Old Guard”.  In service since 1784, the Tomb Guard is part of the longest-serving active infantry unit in the United States military.

Since the 14th-century, the cannon salute signified the recognition of a sovereign state and a peaceful intent, among nations.  The 21-gun salute is the highest military honor, a nation can bestow.   The Tomb Sentinel who “walks the mat” walks precisely 21 steps down the 63-foot black mat laid across the Tomb of the Unknown, signifying that 21-gun salute.   The Guard then turns east to face the Tomb, pauses another 21-seconds, before beginning the return walk of 21-steps.

The Tomb Sentinel will continue in this manner for a half-hour, one hour or two depending on the time of day, and the season of the year.  If you have witnessed the Changing of the Guard, you are not likely to forget it.  My brother and I were once privileged to experience the moment, in the company of an Honor Flight of WW2 veterans. If you’ve never seen the ceremony, I recommend the experience.

Back in 1919, AEF commander General John Pershing and Allied Supreme Commander Marshall Ferdinand Foch of France were adamantly opposed to the treaty, at Versailles. Germany had been defeated they argued, but not Beaten. Without destroying the German war machine on its own soil, Pershing believed the two nations would once again find themselves at war. Marshall Foch agreed, reading the treaty with the remark: “This isn’t a peace. It’s a cease-fire for 20 years!

He got that wrong.  By 36 days._MG_0016_1466631465932.jpg

November 8, 1965 The 8th of November

Outnumbered in some places six to one, it was a desperate fight for survival as parts of B and C companies were isolated in fighting that was shoulder to shoulder, hand to hand.

operation-hump-1On this day in 1965, the 173rd Airborne Infantry Brigade was halfway through a one-year term of service, in Vietnam.  “Operation Hump”, so named in recognition of that mid-point, was a search and destroy mission inserted by helicopter on November 5.

Vietcong fighters occupied positions on several key hills near Bien Hoa, with the objective of driving the Americans out.

Operation hump, 2There was little contact through the evening of the 7th, when B and C Companies of the 1/503rd took up a night defensive position in the triple canopied jungle near Hill 65.

On the morning of the 8th, the Brigade found itself locked in combat with an entire main line Vietcong Regiment, pouring out of entrenched positions and onto the American defenses.

The Vietcong were well aware of American superiority when it came to artillery and air cover.  The VC strategy was to get in so close that it nullified the advantage.  “Grab Their Belts to Fight Them”.

Operation hump, 4Outnumbered in some places six to one, it was a desperate fight for survival as parts of B and C companies were isolated in fighting that was shoulder to shoulder, hand to hand.

Shot through the right thigh and calf with his medical supplies depleted, Army Medic Lawrence Joel hobbled about the battlefield on a makeshift crutch, tending to the wounded.

Though wounded himself, Specialist 4 Randy Eickhoff ran ahead, providing covering fire. Eickhoff was later awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart for his actions.

Specialist 5 Joel received the Medal of Honor for his actions that day, near hill 65.  Let Joel’s citation, tell his part of the story:

Cmoh_armyFor conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty. Specialist 5 Joel demonstrated indomitable courage, determination, and professional skill when a numerically superior and well-concealed Viet Cong element launched a vicious attack which wounded or killed nearly every man in the lead squad of the company. After treating the men wounded by the initial burst of gunfire, he bravely moved forward to assist others who were wounded while proceeding to their objective. While moving from man to man, he was struck in the right leg by machine gun fire. Although painfully wounded his desire to aid his fellow soldiers transcended all personal feeling. He bandaged his own wound and self-administered morphine to deaden the pain enabling him to continue his dangerous undertaking. Through this period of time, he constantly shouted words of encouragement to all around him. Then, completely ignoring the warnings of others, and his pain, he continued his search for wounded, exposing himself to hostile fire; and, as bullets dug up the dirt around him, he held plasma bottles high while kneeling completely engrossed in his life saving mission. Then, after being struck a second time and with a bullet lodged in his thigh, he dragged himself over the battlefield and succeeded in treating 13 more men before his medical supplies ran out. Displaying resourcefulness, he saved the life of one man by placing a plastic bag over a severe chest wound to congeal the blood. As 1 of the platoons pursued the Viet Cong, an insurgent force in concealed positions opened fire on the platoon and wounded many more soldiers. With a new stock of medical supplies, lawrence-joel-popart-lawrence-joelSpecialist 5 Joel again shouted words of encouragement as he crawled through an intense hail of gunfire to the wounded men. After the 24 hour battle subsided and the Viet Cong dead numbered 410, snipers continued to harass the company. Throughout the long battle, Specialist 5 Joel never lost sight of his mission as a medical aid man and continued to comfort and treat the wounded until his own evacuation was ordered. His meticulous attention to duty saved a large number of lives and his unselfish, daring example under most adverse conditions was an inspiration to all. Specialist 5. Joel’s profound concern for his fellow soldiers, at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in the highest traditions of the U.S. Army and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country“.

48 Americans lost their lives in the battle.  Many more were wounded.  Two Australian paratroopers were recorded as MIA.  Their remains were discovered years later, and repatriated in 2007.

The country music duo Big and Rich wrote a musical tribute to that day.  It’s called the 8th of November.

November 7, 1957 Nuking the Moon

Out of the mess of the Space race emerged an idea destined to go down in the Hare-Brain Hall of fame, if there is ever to be such a place. A show of force sufficient to boost domestic morale, while showing the Russkies, we mean business. It was the top-secret “Project A119”, also known as A Study of Lunar Research Flights.

We were going to detonate a nuclear weapon.  On the moon.

As World War II drew to a close in 1945, there arose a different sort of conflict, a contest of wills, between the two remaining Great Powers of the world. The “Cold War” pitted the free market economy and constitutional republicanism of the United States against the top-down, authoritarian governing and economic models of the Soviet Union. The stakes could not have been higher, as each side sought to demonstrate its own technological and military superiority and, by implication, the dominance of its own economic and political system.

American nuclear preeminence lasted but four short years, coming to an end with the first successful Soviet atomic weapon test code named “First Lightning”, carried out on August 29, 1949. Mutual fear and distrust fueled the Soviet-American “arms race”, a buildup of nuclear stockpiles beyond any rational purpose. A generation grew up under the shadow of nuclear annihilation.  A single mistake, misunderstanding or one fool in the wrong place at the wrong time, initiating a sequence and bringing about the extinction of life on this planet.

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The arms race acquired the dimensions of a Space Race on July 29, 1956, when the United States announced its intention to launch an artificial satellite, into earth orbit. Two days later, the Soviet Union announced that it aimed to do the same.

The early Space Race period was a time of serial humiliation for the American side, as the Soviet Union launched the first Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) on August 21, 1957, and the first artificial satellite “Sputnik 1” on October 4.

Laika and capsuleThe first living creature to enter space was the dog Laika“, launched aboard the spacecraft Sputnik 2 on November 3 and labeled by the more smartass specimens among the American commentariat, as “Muttnik”.

Soviet propaganda proclaimed “the first traveler in the cosmos”, replete with heroic images printed on posters, stamps and matchbook covers. The American news media could do little but focus on the politics of the launch, as animal lovers the world over questioned the ethics of sending a dog to certain death, in space.

On the American side, the giant Vanguard rocket was scheduled to launch a grapefruit-sized test satellite into earth orbit that September, but the program was plagued by one delay after another.  The December 6 launch was a comprehensive disaster, the rocket lifting all of four-feet from the pad before crashing to the ground in a sheet of flame, the satellite rolling free where it continued to beep, only feet from the burning wreck.

The second Vanguard launch was nearly as bad, exploding in flames only seconds after launch.  Chortling Soviet leaders were beside themselves with joy, stamping the twin disasters as “Kaputnik”, and “Flopnik”.

Out of this mess emerged an idea destined to go down in the Hare-Brain Hall of fame, if there is ever to be such a place. A show of force sufficient to boost domestic morale, while showing the Russkies, we mean business. It was the top-secret “Project A119”, also known as A Study of Lunar Research Flights.

We were going to detonate a nuclear weapon.  On the moon.

In 1957, newspapers reported a rumor.  The Soviet Union planned a nuclear test explosion on the moon, timed to coincide with the lunar eclipse of November 7.  A celebration of the anniversary of the Glorious October Revolution.

Edward Teller himself, the ‘Father of the H-Bomb” is said to have proposed such an idea as early as February, to test the effects of the explosion in a vacuum, and conditions of zero gravity.

Today, we take for granted the massively complex mathematics, involved in hitting an object like the moon. In 1957 there was a very real possibility of missing the thing and boomerang effect, returning the bomb from whence it came.

While the information is still classified, the project was revealed in 2000 by former NASA executive Leonard Reiffel, who said he was asked to “fast track” the program in 1958, by senior Air Force officials. A young Carl Sagan was all for the idea, believing at the time that living microbes may inhabit the moon, and a nuclear explosion may help in detecting such organisms.

Reiffel commented in a Guardian newspaper interview:  “It was clear the main aim of the proposed detonation was a PR exercise and a show of one-upmanship. The Air Force wanted a mushroom cloud so large it would be visible on earth. The US was lagging behind in the space race.” The now-retired NASA executive went on to explain that “The explosion would obviously be best on the dark side of the moon and the theory was that if the bomb exploded on the edge of the moon, the mushroom cloud would be illuminated by the sun.”

The Air Force canceled the A119 program in 1959, apparently out of concern that a ‘militarization of space’ would create public backlash, and that nuclear fallout may hamper future research and even colonization efforts, on the moon.

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Previously secret reports revealed in 2010 that Soviet leaders had indeed contemplated such a project, part of a multi-part program code named “E”.  Project E-1 involved reaching the moon, while E-2 and E-3 focused on sending a probe around the far side of the celestial body. The final stage, project E-4, involved a nuclear strike on the moon as a “display of force”.

Construction plans for the aforementioned Hare-Brain Hall of Fame have yet to be announced but, it already appears the place may need another wing.

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