Omayra Sanchez Garzon was horrifically killed amidst the 1985 eruption of Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia.
The enormous active volcano stretches a whopping 80 miles west of the Colombian capital of Bogota. Omayra's tragic last moments were captured on camera by French photojournalist Frank Fourier.
What you are about to read is extremely disturbing. This article contains graphic descriptions that some people may find upsetting.
A Tragic Story
This story gained worldwide recognition a year after the eruption in 1986. The now-famous photograph used in our heading won the World Press Photo of the Year award, making Fourier a household name.
Omayra Sanchez Garzon was born in August of 1972 and grew up in the small town of Armero, in the Tolina province of Colombia. She lived with her parents and younger brother in a rural farming community of rice and berry pickers. Not much is known about Omayra Sanchez before the eruption, but it's safe to assume she led a pretty normal life.
The Nevado Del Ruiz Eruption
The Nevado del Ruiz eruption took place on November 13th, 1986, just after 9 pm. The icecap that sat high in the mountains rapidly melted into a slurry of volcanic mud, silt, and debris which catapulted itself down into the surrounding valleys with alarming speed. Traveling at around 13 miles per hour, it swallowed the entire town of Armero and killed as many as 20,000 civilians.
Unfortunately, the Colombian government didn't set up adequate volcanic defenses or have systems in place to evacuate the town. After the Armero tragedy, the government said that the lack of safety measures was down to the fact that the volcano hadn't been active for over 100 years.
However, some argue that the eruption could have been predicted, and the town of Armero could have been evacuated before the volcano swallowed it up.
Volcanologists and geological experts surveyed surrounding areas as little as two months before the eruption. They concluded that a volcanic eruption was plausible and produced a report asking the government to sure-up the defenses. This was ignored for reasons we'll never know. The Colombian government was widely criticized after the tragic incident took place and inadvertently apologized to the devastated local communities.
The Devastation Hits
At around 11:30 pm, a wall of dirty debris-filled water came crashing down into Armero. It ravaged the electricity station and destroyed the town's only radio communication tower.
In three successive waves, the water proceeded to ebb and flowed down the valleys of Armero, burying almost eighty-five percent of the town. This is undoubtedly one of the most deadly volcanic eruptions of the 21st century, second only to the eruption of Mount Pelee on the Caribbean island of Martinique circa 1902.
Omayra Sánchez survived the initial eruption, but her house collapsed in on itself when the volcanic slurry hit. She was buried among layers of jagged concrete and waterlogged ruins and could only move her hand. The motion caught the attention of nearby rescuers, and it took almost twenty-four hours for the debris to be removed.
Rescuers tried and failed to pull Omayra free from the water because her fragile legs were trapped underneath a submerged brick wall. If they moved her too aggressively, they risked breaking her legs.
Emergency Services Arrive On Scene
Scores of emergency professionals, journalists, and news outlets arrived on the scene to help in any way they could. The first was Santa Maria Barragan, a Columbian journalist who described Omayra as "in good spirits despite her predicament...she sang to me as she waited to be rescued, ate sweets and drank soda…"
Still, on day three of her horrifying ordeal, her condition hastily deteriorated, and she began to hallucinate. She begged Barragan to help her get to school because she was afraid of being late.
By this point, Omayra had been exposed for three whole days. Her prolonged stint in the water, coupled with the increasing pressure of the debris on her leg, resulted in her haunting bloodshot black pupils that can be observed in her famous photograph.
A Heartbreaking End For Omayra Sánchez
Rescue workers labored tirelessly in their efforts to save young Omarya Sanchez. After receiving a pump to drain the water from her surroundings, they realized that her knee was bent over in a kneeling position.
It would have been impossible to remove her from the debris without severing her leg. The problem at this point was the lack of surgical equipment needed to aid her after the potential surgery.
A double amputee requires immediate attention after surgery, and the ground team simply didn't have the supplies they needed to treat Omayra effectively.
The medical team took a vote and decided that the most humane thing to do was let her die naturally. After more than sixty hours of being trapped, Omayra's body finally succumbed to its injuries. She eventually died from a combination of exposure, gangrene, and hypothermia.
A few hours before Omayra passed away, Fournier would arrive on the scene and capture the world-famous photograph of her blackened eyes.
A local resident directed Fournier to Omayra's location. Upon seeing her condition, decided to take a picture to "properly report on the courage and the suffering and the dignity of the little girl."
The Legacy Of A Courageous Girl
Following the eruption, the now-famous photo of Omayra sparked outrage in Colombia and across the world. The Colombian government was heavily criticized for its failure to act on stark warning signs two months prior to the eruption.
The town of Armero was tragically wiped off of the map, but the memory of a little girl whose reliance struck a chord in all of our hearts and minds will live on forever.
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