On November 13, 1985, at 9:09pm, a volcano named Nevado del Ruiz erupted in Columbia. The eruption tossed magma and other volcanic material 30 kilometers up in the air. The lahar, formed of water, ice, pumice, and other rocks began to flow down the slopes of the volcano. And there located a town named Armero barely 48 kilometers from the volcano. The tragedy was inevitable. The first lahar (mudflow) hit the town at 11:30pm and more waves hit one after the other shortly after. Today’s iconic photograph comes from this horrible event. The photograph shows Omayra Sánchez buried in water and debris up to her neck.
Omayra Sánchez was a 13 year old girl who lived in Armero with her parents, her brother and an uncle. Omayra’s mother was not in the town on the night of tragedy. As the lahar came town, Omayra and other members of the family began to run outside their house. But Omayra stopped to save a sibling. Within moments, the lahar flow reached their house and Omayra got trapped the debris of her own house.
Omayra was buried in water and concrete up to her neck. Later when the rescue workers came, they tried to help her. But the rescue team found that her legs were trapped in concrete and were also clutched tight by the arms of her dead aunt whose body had drowned in the water. The rescue volunteers did not have proper tools to pull Omayra out of water. But still they kept trying their best.
Omayra remained trapped like this for three days and eventually, the little girl, succumbed to gangrene and hypothermia. Photographer Frank Fournier took her photograph just minutes before Omayra died. Her three days long plight had come in the world’s focus as her photos and videos were quickly broadcast through TV channels. People were amazed to see Omayra’s courage and dignity with which that child held herself in the face of death.
According to Cristina Echandia, a journalist who kept records of the events, Omayra sang and had normal conversations with the people who were trying to help her. The teenage girl was thirsty and scared. On the third night, Omayra began hallucinating, saying that she did not want to be late for school. At some point of time, she also asked the people to leave her and take some rest. After 60 hours of excruciating exposure, Omayra died. Ironically, just two hours before her death a pump could be brought to pull the water out but the pump turned out to be broken, and just four hours after Omayra’s death, the regional town received 18 pumps.
More than 20,000 of the total population (29,000) of Armero perished in this disaster. Overall about 25,000 people had died in the tragedy. Omayra’s mother and brother survived but her father died. Colombian government was heavily criticized for its poor handling of the crisis. The government issued a statement that Colombia is an undeveloped country and they simply did not have enough resources to help the victims.
Now the town of Armero does not exist. The site has been turned into a memorial of the disaster where only crosses can be seen.
Frank Fournier won the 1986 World Press Photo award for this photograph. He was also criticized by many people for taking picture of a helpless dying child. You may remember that Kevin Carter also received similar criticism when he shot the photograph showing a emancipated Sudanese girl and a vulture in wait.
Below is a video in which Omayra is seen talking to the helpless rescue workers gathered around her.
Another video that shows more moments from the horrendous plight of this brave little girl.
The Colombian government was heavily criticized for failing to save life of Omayra Sánchez. Most of the people who see above videos feel that the girl could have been saved. But I see that volunteers present at the site were extremely distraught because of Omayra’s conditions. There is no doubt that they did everything they could to save her. However, the administration should have acted better to find a way to get the girl out of the concrete trap.
Needless to say, it is a very sad photograph. While saluting the courage of Omayra Sánchez, I invite you to share your views on it.