The Tragic death of Omayra Sanchez

 Armero tragedy

The “Nevado del Ruíz” is a snowy volcano located in the central region of Colombia, and is part of the Andes mountain range. Armero was a little town of about 29000 inhabitants located 48 kilometers from the volcano.

A: Volcano - B: Armero old town
Nevado del Ruiz to Armero (Ruinas), Tolima, Colombia - Google 

Since 1984 the volcano had increased its activity with fumaroles, deposition of sulfur on the summit, and phreatic eruptions. The previously eruption was in 1845, 140 years before, and the nearby residents weren’t afraid of the volcano. In September 1985 the Colombian government published a hazard map in an attempt to warn the nearby population around the “Nevado del Ruiz” about the imminent danger. Finally, on November 13, 1985 the volcano erupted.

The event started at 3 P.M. with black ash columns. The geological department (Ingeominas) ordered the evacuation of the area, and an emergency committee of the civil defense and the Red Cross proceeded with the evacuation orders at 7 P.M. Apparently, that day was heavily raining in Armero, and an electrical failure prevented the local authorities to receive the emergency message. The population was unaware of the risk they were facing staying at home and the residents were informed the ash column was nothing to worry about. At 9:09 P.M the volcano exploded and threw 35 million metric tons of material including magma. The eruption was classified as moderate according the Volcanic explosivity index (3 out of 7).

The eruption produced pyroclastic flows that melted glaciers and snow, generating four thick lahars that raced down river valleys on the volcano's flanks. Just before 11:30 P.M., a huge stream of water swept through Armero. 75% of the population of Armero (~21000) died because of the lahars. Nearby towns were also affected, like Chinchiná, Caldas where 1800 died.

An aerial photo of Armero after the lahar

Omayra’s agony

Omayra Sánchez was a little 13 year old girl who lived in Armero when the “Nevado del Ruíz” erupted. When the lahar destroyed her house, her father and aunt died inside. She was able to survive the lahar, but when rescue teams tried to help her, they realized that her legs were trapped under her house's roof. Once the girl was freed from the waist up, her rescuers attempted to pull her out, but found the task impossible without breaking her legs in the process. Rescue workers placed a tire around her body to avoid her to drown. Divers discovered that Sánchez's legs were caught under a door made of bricks, with her aunt's body under her feet.

Lacking the surgical conditions to save her from the effects of an amputation, the doctors agreed that it would be more humane to let her die. She suffered for nearly three nights (roughly 60 hours) before she died at 10:05 A.M. on November 16 from exposure, most likely from gangrene or hypothermia.

Omayra became a symbol of the tragedy. Despite her imminent death, the girl remained positive all the time. The rescuers gave her sweet food and soda, and she agreed to be interviewed.


Frank Fournier, a French reporter, took a photograph of Sánchez in her final hours, titled "The Agony of Omayra Sánchez".

The picture was published six months after her death, and later won the World Press Photo of the Year for 1985. Omayra's face became worldwide known.

Today, she remains as the symbol of the Armero tragedy. Her tomb is visited by local and tourists to offer her a prayer and ask to never repeat this tragedy.

Tumba Omaira Sanchez. Omayra's tumb.

The town of Armero was moved a few kilometers North and renamed as Armero Guayabal. The old Armero is abandoned and half-buried under the mud.

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