November, 1985, a month that will be remembered in Colombia as one of death and destruction. The volcano of Nevado del Ruiz, dormant since 1595, is stirring, and it’s having a terrible effect on the surrounding area; the earth shakes, the air is filled with ash and the groundwater is contaminated. And it hasn’t even erupted yet.
Until it did, spewing lava far and wide, causing massive mudslides and other damage. The small town of Armero was hardest hit, bearing the brunt of the mudslides. It was not a good day, especially not if your name was Omayra Sanchez.
A young girl from Armero, Omayra was found trapped under debris, a metal bar in her hip, submerged in dirty water up to her chin. And she would remain there for three days. Three. Days. Let that sink in.
The story of Omayra captured the hearts and minds of people from around the world, captured as it was by various photographers. One reporter, who had spent 50 years covering conflict in Colombia, rates Armero and Omayra’s story as the saddest thing he had seen.
Rescuers spent days trying to rescue Omayra from the rubble but were unable to safely extricate her as they feared that doing so would literally remove her legs. And so she spent 60 hours trapped there, watching and hoping as people strove to rescue her, but to no avail. She died overnight, much to the despair of those attempting to save her.
Over 25 000 other people died in the aftermath of the eruption but it was Omayra that attracted the most attention, thanks in no small part to the celebrated photo of her taken by Frank Fournier. Fournier commented on Omayra, saying that she had an “incredible personality” and spoke with her would-be rescuers with the utmost respect, urging them to go and rest.