On November 13, 1985, the Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted in Colombia. It was the middle of the night. The majority of residents in the surrounding areas were fast asleep. Before retiring to their beds, they had absolutely no idea the tragedy that was about to unfold. It had been 150 years since “the Sleeping Lion” had erupted, and the government said there was nothing to worry about.
Although the volcano was 44.5 miles away, the eruption ended up causing a catastrophic landslide of mud and debris — called a lahar — that completely wiped out the town of Amero, along with 13 other villages. There was zero warning. There was no time to evacuate. The lahar traveled at about 30 miles per hour, and in some places, was as thick as 132 feet.
When all was said and done, a total of 23,000 people perished.
Even 30 years later, it’s a heartbreaking disaster that continues to linger in the memories of those who survived, lost loved ones, aided in rescuing those who were trapped, and even those who documented the destruction left behind, including bodies of the suffering and dead.
One of the most captivating and controversial images was that of Omayra Sánchez, a 13-year-old girl who had become trapped beneath the debris of her own house. Photojournalist Frank Fournier took the photo just hours before she died.
It was a photo that would later win the World Press Photo of Year award in 1986.
For three days, Omayra remained stuck below the water, as relief workers struggled to free her. Journalists and photographers from around the world captured her anguish and courage throughout the ordeal. Despite the fact that she knew she was going to die, for a while Omayra even stayed rather optimistic. She agreed to be interviewed and photographed. She also became frightened. She prayed. She sobbed.
Workers did what they could to try and save her from the mud and rubble of her home but their efforts were met with hopelessness. They brought a water pump to the scene and quickly realized that they’d be unable to pull her out without amputating both her legs. Due to a lack of surgical equipment, doctors believed the most humane thing to do was let her die.
On the third night, the young girl started to hallucinate. And before long, her face swelled up, her eyes turned from hopeful to dark red, and the skin on her hands became white.
Then, at 10:05 a.m. on November 16, after 60 hours of holding on, she died. Anyone who was present during her suffering, knows what it’s like to feel totally powerless. What they experienced, is something they’ll never forget.
“At that time, Omayra was the only one left alive, I spent an hour or two there,” says photographer Jairo Higueria. “Night had fallen and it was impossible to return to the scene. When I came back the next day, she was dead. I cried and cried.”
Divers later discovered that her legs were trapped by the body of her aunt and pinned against a wall.
Omayra, along with her father and sister, perished in the catastrophe, though her brother and mother survived.