On November 13, 1985, the Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted. Pyroclastic flows exploding from the crater melted the mountain’s icecap, forming lahars (volcanic mudflows and debris flows) which cascaded into river valleys below. Omayra Sánchez lived in the neighborhood of Santander with her parents. The night of the disaster, Omayra and her family were awake, worrying about the ashfall from the eruption, when they heard the sound of an approaching lahar. After it hit, Omayra became trapped under her home’s concrete and other debris and could not free herself. When rescue teams tried to help her, they realized that her legs were trapped under her house’s roof.

Omayra SanchezOmayra was immobilized from the waist down, but her upper body was free of the concrete and mud. For the first few hours after the mudflow hit, she was covered by concrete but got her hand through a crack in the debris. After a rescuer noticed her hand protruding from a pile of debris, he and others cleared tiles and wood over the course of a day. 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. Each time a person pulled her, the water pooled around her, rising so that it seemed she would drown if they let her go, so rescue workers placed a tire around her body to keep her afloat. Divers discovered that Sánchez’s legs were caught under a door made of bricks, with her aunt’s arms clutched tightly around her legs and feet.

Despite her predicament, Sánchez remained relatively positive: she sang to a journalist who was working as a volunteer, asked for sweet food, drank soda, and agreed to be interviewed. At times, she was scared, and prayed or cried. On the third night, Sánchez began hallucinating, saying that she did not want to be late for school, and mentioned a math exam. Near the end of her life, Sánchez’s eyes reddened, her face swelled, and her hands whitened. At one point she asked the people to leave her so they could rest. Hours later the workers returned with a pump and tried to save her, but her legs were bent under the concrete as if she was kneeling, and it was impossible to free her without severing her legs. Lacking the surgical equipment to save her from the effects of an amputation, the doctors present agreed that it would be more humane to let her die. In all, Sánchez suffered for nearly three nights (roughly 60 hours) before she died at approximately 10:05 A.M. on November 16 from exposure, most likely from gangrene or hypothermia.

Frank Fournier, a French reporter who landed in Bogotá on November 15, took a photograph of Sánchez in her final days, titled “The Agony of Omayra Sánchez”. When he reached Armero at dawn on the 16th, a farmer directed him to Sánchez, who by then had been trapped for nearly three days and was near-deserted. Fournier later described the town as “very haunting,” with “eerie silence” punctuated by screaming.


That is a difficult story to read. Suffering and death are always hard, but there is a special knife twist when the helplessness or apathy of people comes into stark focus. In that account I don’t know where the inability of rescuers ends and apathy begins. Yes, saving Omayra would have been hard–exhaustingly difficult–if it was even possible. But when I read that story I feel angry because it sounds like the people didn’t understand what it meant to give everything you have to try to save the life of another person.

By everything I mean not just a good effort, and not just a reasonable try. But everything–every last bit of strength, for the life of another person.

Omayra was clearly visible, as the photo shows. She was not buried deep under a mountain of rubble. By written accounts she was only trapped by an immovable object from her knees down. There was a lot of mud and a lot of water. It was daunting. People did try–some. But when they discovered what seemed to be impossible difficulties, they gave up. Her picture was taken, she was interviewed–and all those people didn’t spend every hour and every breath they had trying to set her free. They recorded the tragedy, and in that act made themselves the greatest tragedy. They gave up before she was dead.

I can’t get that out of my mind.


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