Armero, Colombia in Armero, Colombia

The city of Armero, founded in 1895, was once known as the White City owing to its role as the capital of the Colombia’s main cotton-producing region. Located over 100 miles from the national capital of Bogota, its excellent volcanic soils, warm climate, and its situation near the banks of the Magdalena River made it an agricultural and economic centre of Tolima Department.

By 1985, the population of the town in the hot, lush valley had grown to almost 29,000 people. In the middle of this darkest decade in Colombia’s history, with Pablo Escobar waging a campaign of terror and leftist guerrillas having kidnapped the entire supreme court, a fresh tragedy was about to destroy the city forever.

The enormous snow-capped volcano that had bestowed upon the region its fertile soils had been threatening to erupt and scientists and international observers had warned the Colombian government of the need to evacuate surrounding towns. The government, perhaps preoccupied with the unfolding political and security catastrophes gripping the country, failed to convey the danger to the inhabitants. On the evening of 13th November, despite the smoke and ash drifting out of the mountain, the mayor and the priest reassured the people that they were safe in their houses. At 9pm that night, the volcano erupted, rapidly melting the glacier that sat atop its peak. This caused a wave of volcanic mud, known as a lahar, to cascade down the mountain at speeds of up to 60km/hour, following the course of the Lagunilla River, all the way to Armero.

Three successive waves of water and volcanic mud enveloped the town. 20,000 people were buried in minutes with many drowned in their homes. Owing to the extreme viscosity of the mud, rescue efforts were not able to reach the town for a further 12 hours, so that many more of the injured died. In the end, more than three quarters of the 29,000 residents died. Many blamed the government for downplaying the risks in order to avoid costly precautionary measures. There were 20,000 refugees from Armero and surrounding towns, most of whom never received material support or compensation from the state. The following year, John Paul II visited the site of the town, as well as refugee camps in nearby Lerida and Guayabal (now Armero-Guayabal). He declared Armero to be holy ground and a statue depicting the pope kneeling in prayer before a cross was erected there.

Today the town is completely abandoned and is slowly being reclaimed by the tropical forest: trees grow up through the roofs of those houses not completely submerged; clouds of butterflies waft down gloomy, green streets gone quiet. The hospital still stands by the main road, its stucco portico now at waist-height. A great rock carried on the lahar is daubed with the names of the family who lived, and are presumed buried, where it landed.

One victim of the tragedy gained particular attention from international press who descended on the town: Omayra Sanchez, a 14-year old girl who was buried to the waist in the volcanic mud and trapped below the knees. For two days before she died, Omayra spoke and sang to rescuers and journalists with such grace and stoicism that she became a national icon, a symbol of Colombia’s fortitude in the face of terrible suffering.

In the years since, a memorial was installed at the site of Omayra’s death, which has become a site of pilgrimage for many from the local area and beyond. Today the unofficial monument is bedecked with flowers, dolls, bracelets, pictures of the Virgin Mary, and plaques offering thanks for favours performed by the dead girl.

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