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.”