On November 13, 1985, the Nevado del Ruiz — a highly active volcano in Colombia — erupted, melting glaciers and sending torrents of mud and detritus 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, called a lahar, literally wiped their town of Armero from the map. Buried beneath the roof of her home, Sánchez 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 fallen family members. There was no way to save 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 wasn't going to survive soon 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 photo, Sánchez issues a haunting call to the world for a help that would never come. Fournier won the 1986 World Press Photo of the Year for the image.
If we have photo and video documentation of Sánchez’s descent from calmness into agony over the course of the three days she was trapped, 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 remnants 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 deceased 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 either of those things. And, each time they tried to save her, workers caused the water to raise around her 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 pass away. Which she did, after being pinned beneath the rubble for nearly 60 hours.
One of the most chilling things about Omayra Sánchez’s slow descent — 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 end, the little girl began to say her goodbyes, bidding her mother “adiós,” which can be heard in the above video.
As she neared the end, 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) reported 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.
Omayra Sánchez’s horrific (and horrifically unnecessary) story 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 total, 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.” In addition, according to Fournier, Columbian troops were otherwise engaged; M-19 guerrillas had just taken over the Palace of Justice in Bogotá.
According to Frank Fournier, Sánchez passed away just three hours after he took the photograph that would quickly be seen ‘round the world. While, on the one hand, the shot won him the 1986 World Press Photo of the Year, on the other, it sparked intense debate about the very existence of photojournalism. Why, many wondered, had the technology to take her photograph superseded the technology to save her life? Why hadn’t Fournier focused on pulling her out of the rubble instead of dispassionately documenting her suffering?
Fournier has spoken about his decision — and the broader context of the situation — in the decades since the event. In an interview with the BBC in 2005, he explained that, given the impossibility of saving Sánchez’s life, he felt the most ethical thing he could do at the time was capture her dignity in the face of an ineffable tragedy. He remembered:
I reached the town of Ameroyo [sic]at dawn about three days after the explosion. There was a lot of confusion — people were in shock and in desperate need of help… [Omayra] was in a large puddle, trapped from the waist down by concrete and other debris from the collapsed houses. She had been there for almost three days. Dawn was just breaking and the poor girl was in pain and very confused.. I could hear people screaming for help and then silence — an eerie silence. It was very haunting.. When I took the pictures I felt totally powerless in front of this little girl, who was facing death with courage and dignity. She could sense that her life was going. I felt that the only thing I could do was to report properly on the courage and the suffering and the dignity of the little girl… I felt I had to report what this little girl had to go through.
Frank Fournier’s affecting photograph 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.