Wednesday, May 18, 2011


The Colombian volcano Nevado del Ruiz is an active stratovolcano with a history of generating deadly volcanic mudflows (lahars) from relatively small-volume eruptions. In 1595, a lahar swept down the valleys of the River Guali and the River Lagunillas, killing 636 people. In 1845, an immense lahar flooded the upper valley of the River Lagunillas, killing over 1000 people. It continued for 70 kilometers downstream before spreading across a plain in the lower valley floor. The young village of Armero was built directly on top of the 1845 mudflow deposit. Over the ensuing years, Armero grew into a vibrant town with over 27,000 residents. On November 13, 1985, history repeated itself for the third time in 400 years,

Omayra Sanchez
Trapped in the Armero tragedy
Eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano, Armero, Colombia
Contact Press Images

Omayra Sánchez (sometimes spelled Omaira Sanchez) was a 13-year-old victim of the 1985 eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano, which erupted on November 13, 1985, in Armero, Colombia causing massive lahars which killed nearly 25,000. Trapped for three days in water, concrete, and other debris before she died, Omayra captured the attention of the media as volunteer workers told of a girl they were unable to save. Videos of her communicating with workers, smiling and making gestures to video cameras circulated around the media. Her "courage and dignity" touched Frank Fournier and many other relief workers who gathered around her to pray and be with her.
After 60 hours of struggling, she died. Her death highlighted the failure of officials to respond promptly to the threat of the volcano and also the struggle for volunteer rescue workers to save trapped victims who would otherwise be quickly saved and treated.

Della and Frank Fournier
Photo scanned by Bob Frei at

Sánchez became famous for a photograph of her taken by photojournalist Frank Fournier shortly before she died. When published worldwide after the young girl's death, the image caused controversy because of the photographer's decision to take it and the Colombian government's inaction in not working to prevent the Armero tragedy despite the forewarning that had been available.

Omayra Sanchez

An explosive eruption from Ruiz's summit crater on November 13, 1985, at 9:08 p.m. generated an eruption column and sent a series of pyroclastic flows and surges across the volcano's broad ice-covered summit. Pumice and meltwater produced by the hot pyroclastic flows and surges swept into gullies and channels on the slopes of Ruiz as a series of small lahars. Flowing downstream from Ruiz at an average speed of 60 km per hour, lahars eroded soil, loose rock debris and stripped vegetation from river channels. By incorporating water and debris from along river channels, the lahars grew in size as they moved away from the volcano--some lahars increased up to 4 times their initial volumes.
Within four hours of the beginning of the eruption, lahars had traveled 100 km and left behind a wake of destruction: more than 23,000 people killed, about 5,000 injured, and more than 5,000 homes destroyed along the Chinchiná, Gualí, and Lagunillas rivers. Hardest hit was the town of Armero at the mouth of the Río Lagunillas canyon. Three quarters of its 28,700 inhabitants perished - Amalgamation of sentences taken verbatim from source.
(Author Jeffrey Marso, USGS geologist)
Frank Fournier traveled to Armero, which was, according to Fournier, "very remote", by driving for five hours and traveling on foot for another two and a half hours. Reaching Armero at dawn on the 16th, he was directed to Omayra Sánchez by a farmer, who was at that time almost deserted, having been trapped for nearly three days. Fournier later described the town as "very haunting", with "eerie silence" marked by screaming. He took the photograph feeling that he could only "report properly on the courage and the suffering and the dignity of the little girl" in his attempt to spread awareness of the disaster's need for relief efforts.
At the time the now famous photograph was taken, the world was already fixated on the tragedy. Omayra was one of the victims at the center of the associated controversy over responsibility for the disaster. Almost immediately after its release, the image captured widespread attention. According to an unnamed BBC author, "many were appalled at witnessing so intimately what transpired to be the last few hours of Omayra's life".
The image also attracted controversy after it appeared in Paris Match. The public began to accuse Fournier of being "a vulture", to which he responded by stating, "I felt the story was important for me to report and I was happier that there was some reaction; it would have been worse if people had not cared about it." He added, "I believe the photo helped raise money from around the world in aid and helped highlight the irresponsibility and lack of courage of the country's leaders." The picture later went on to win the World Press Photo of the Year for 1985.

Rescue Workers
Efe Agencia at

Frank Fournier describes how he captured the tragic image of 13-year-old Omayra Sanchez trapped in debris caused by a mudslide following the eruption. Red Cross rescue workers had apparently repeatedly appealed to the government for a pump to lower the water level and for other help to free the girl. Finally rescuers gave up and spent their remaining time with her, comforting her and praying with her. She died of exposure after about 60 hours.
“I arrived in Bogota from New York about two days after the volcanic eruption. The area I needed to get to was very remote. It involved a five-hour drive and then about two and a half hours walking.
The country itself was in political turmoil - shortly before the explosion, there had been a takeover of the Palace of Justice in Bogota by leftist M-19 guerrillas. Many people had been killed and this had a big impact on the way people in the remote town of Armero were helped. The army, for example, had been mobilised in the capital.
I reached the town of Ameroyo at dawn about three days after the explosion. There was a lot of confusion - people were in shock and in desperate need of help. Many were trapped by debris.
I met a farmer who told me of this young girl who needed help. He took me to her, she was almost on her own at the time, just a few people around and some rescuers helping someone else a bit further away.
She was in a large puddle, trapped from the waist down by concrete and other debris from the collapsed houses. She had been there for almost three days. Dawn was just breaking and the poor girl was in pain and very confused. All around, hundreds of people were trapped. Rescuers were having difficulty reaching them. I could hear people screaming for help and then silence - an eerie silence. It was very haunting. There were a few helicopters, some that had been loaned by an oil company, trying to rescue people.
Then there was this little girl and people were powerless to help her. The rescuers kept coming back to her, local farmers and some people who had some medical aid. They tried to comfort her. When I took the pictures I felt totally powerless in front of this little girl, who was facing death with courage and dignity. She could sense that her life was going. I felt that the only thing I could do was to report properly on the courage and the suffering and the dignity of the little girl and hope that it would mobilise people to help the ones that had been rescued and had been saved. I felt I had to report what this little girl had to go through. By this stage, Omayra was drifting in and out of consciousness. She even asked me if I could take her to school because she was worried that she would be late.
I gave my film to some photographers who were going back to the airport and had them shipped back to my agent in Paris. Omayra died about three hours after I got there.
At the time, I didn't realise how powerful the photograph was - the way in which the little girl's eye connect with the camera.
The photograph was published in Paris Match magazine a few days later. People were very disturbed by it because Omayra's plight had been captured by television reporters and relayed around the world. Then my picture of her in the last few hours of her life was published after she had died. People were asking: "Why didn't you help her? Why didn't you get her out?" But it was impossible…..”
The anecdotal human experience will always command our attention. Josef Stalin predated modern electronic newsgathering, but in a twisted way he got one thing right: A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.
For better or worse, we are all transfixed by the singularity, Omayra living and breathing and in close-up. Whether it’s a baby pulled out of the rubble of a Haitian earthquake, or a tourist who survived a tsunami, the “human interest” anecdote will inevitably trump the Big Picture story. It’s not good or bad, it’s just human psychology…..
(Claude Adam, freelance journalist at

Armero aftermath

By danauicopt at

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