Thirty-eight years ago, the world watched a 13-year-old girl die in agony

Trapped in volcanic mud and debris, Omayra Sánchez – and hundreds of rescuers – fought for her life for 60 hours.

The eruption of the volcano Nevada del Ruiz in Colombia on 13 November 1985 destroyed the town Armero and 13 other villages. Within days, the lahars – volcanically-induced mudflows, landslides, and debris – killed about 25,000 people.

One of them was Omayra Sánchez Garzón, a 13-year-old girl trapped beneath the debris of her house, with most of her body remaining in cold water, whose heartbreaking story has been documented by journalists and rescuers. It outlined the authorities’ neglect for scientific warnings and their incompetence to respond during natural disasters.

Military trying to release Omayra from debris.

Omayra miraculously survived the massive lahar that destroyed her home and killed her father and aunt, but rescue teams who arrived at the scene discovered that her legs were firmly wedged beneath the weight of the collapsed roof.

After the mudflow struck, she found herself initially encased in concrete. However, she managed to extend her hand through a fissure in the debris. Noticing her hand emerging from the wreckage, rescuers spent an entire day clearing away tiles and wood.

Rescuers attempting to prevent Omayra from sinking.

As they freed the girl from the waist up, attempts to extract her fully proved challenging without risking injury to her legs. Pulling her caused water to accumulate around her, raising the concern of potential drowning. In response, the workers encircled her with a tire to maintain buoyancy.

Divers subsequently located Sánchez, with her legs trapped under a brick door, tightly embraced by the lifeless arms of her deceased aunt. Despite their best efforts, they were unable to free her without risking severe injury to her body.

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Fighting for life

Remarkably, amid the dire circumstances, Omayra exhibited moments of positivity. She sang to a journalist who was volunteering at the scene and expressed a desire for sweet food, displaying cooperation during interviews. Nevertheless, bouts of fear and despair occasionally overwhelmed her, prompting moments of prayer and tears.

As time elapsed, Omayra's condition deteriorated. Her eyes reddened, her face swelled, and her hands whitened. Despite multiple attempts and dedicated struggle, the rescuers faced a heart-wrenching decision.

A scene from Armero after the eruption.

Omayra's legs were entangled under the concrete in a manner that precluded liberation without resorting to amputation. The rescuers, lacking the necessary surgical equipment and realizing the associated risks, concluded that allowing her to peacefully pass away was the most humane choice.

The girl died on 16 November 1985, most likely from gangrene or hypothermia, under the eyes of devastated rescuers and volunteers. Omayra’s mother, Maria Aleida Garzón, and brother Álvaro Enrique survived the disaster.

The town of Armero a week after the volcanic eruption.

After Omayra Sánchez's death, the Colombian government was bitterly criticized for its inaction and general indifference to warning signs prior to the volcano's eruption. To prevent repetition of such a disaster, the Colombian government created the National Office for Disaster Preparedness.

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The volcano Nevado del Ruiz is still active and climate change is worsening the situation. A 10-percent ice melting would produce mudflows with a volume of as much as 200 million cubic meters - similar to the mudflow that destroyed Armero in 1985. Such lahars can travel up to 100 kilometers along river valleys in a few hours.

The town of Armero was never rebuilt.

The volcano Nevado del Ruiz.

Sources: Wikipedia,