On November 13, 1985, the Nevado del Ruiz – a highly active volcano in Colombia – erupted, melting glaciers and sending torrents of mud and debris into the villages at its base. Thirteen-year-old Omayra Sánchez, along with her family, was trembling in her home as one of these torrents literally wiped the town of Amero, where they lived, from the map. Buried beneath the roof of her home, the trapped Colombian girl yelled for aid workers to free her from the muck. And they tried. But, unbeknownst to workers, Sánchez's legs were pinned beneath a brick door and being clutched tightly by one of her dead family members. There was no way to save Omayra Sánchez's life in the aftermath of the 1985 Nevado del Ruiz eruption.
Lucid for nearly 60 hours after the quake, Sánchez chatted and joked with workers as they tried to save her life. As the exposure began to overtake the young girl, and the reality she was going to die set in, Sánchez told her mother goodbye and asked workers to let her rest. Frank Fournier, a French photographer, captured Omayra Sánchez's last moments in a haunting photograph. Her eyes red, her hands white, in the photograph, Omayra Sánchez issues a haunting call to the world for help, help that would never come. Fournier won the 1986 World Press Photo of the Year for the image.
Omayra's Legs Were Being Held Down By A Brick Door And Clutched In The Arms Of Her Dead Aunt – Workers Couldn't Get Them Out
If we have photo and video documentation of Sánchez's descent from calmness into agony over the course of the three days how is it possible that no one could save the little girl? Why were people taking pictures instead of getting her out of the brutally cold waters and debris of the volcanic eruption?
Though she was mobile from the waist up, Sánchez's legs were pinned beneath a door made of bricks, and the arms of her dead aunt were intertwined around them, clutching them tightly. Rescuers – who repeatedly attempted to pull her from the rubble – discovered it was impossible to get her out without breaking or amputating her legs, and they did not have the necessary medical supplies to do so. And, each time they tried to save her, workers caused the water to raise around a little higher – until they had to put her body in a tire so she wouldn't drown.
As her skin turned white, her eyes reddened, and she began to hallucinate, relief workers decided the most humane course of action would be to let her die. Which she did, after being pinned beneath the rubble for nearly 60 hours.
As Gangrene And Hypothermia Overtook Her Body, Omayra Told Her Mother Goodbye
One of the most chilling thing about Omayra Sánchez's slow descent into death – along with the fact she was surrounded by workers who could not save her life – was that she was totally lucid for most of the unimaginable ordeal. She talked and joked with the workers around her, ate sweets, sang songs, and reflected on her situation. As she began to come to terms with her own impending death, the little girl began to say her goodbyes, bidding her mother "adiós."
As she neared death, the 13 year old began to hallucinate, worrying that she was going to be punished for missing school. A New York Times article from the day she died (November 16, 1985) reports that:
"When she died at 9:45 A.M. today, she pitched backward in the cold water, an arm thrust out and only her nose, mouth and one eye remaining above the surface. Someone then covered her and her aunt with a blue and white checked tablecloth."
She Became An International Symbol Of The 23,000 Who Lost Their Lives In The Tragedy
Omayra Sánchez's horrific (and horrifically unnecessary) death drew sharp criticism from around the globe. Why had the citizens of Armero and other surrounding towns not been properly warned about the threat posed by the Nevado del Ruiz? Why hadn't they been evacuated? Why, when they could see the 13-year-old girl was trapped, did top government officials not make it a priority to helicopter in the life-saving supplies rescue workers needed to get her out? Why were no military or police sent to help out? In all, around 23,000 people died because of the Colombian government's failure to do these things.
For their part, officials denied the idea that they didn't do all they could. General Miguel Vega Uribe, Colombia's minister of defense at the time, said he "understood the criticism," but Colombia was "an underdeveloped country and [didn't] have that kind of equipment." Omayra Sánchez's optimism in the face of her death and Frank Fournier's haunting photography of it issued a call for attention to the world. For their part, Colombia now has the Directorate for Disaster Prevention and Preparedness to help prevent future unnecessary disasters of this magnitude.