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LEFT TO DIE. A Young Girl's Public DEATH Being Trapped After a Mudslide - Omayra Sánchez, COLOMBIA

November 1985: Omayra Sanchez, 13 year-old victim of the
eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Armero, Colombia
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You would think with all the technology at our disposal - even back then in 1985 when this tragedy occurred, that something could have been done to rescue this poor child
from the agony, she endured during her 60-hour ordeal.
The eruption of the volcano's 69-year dormancy caught everyone by surprise, including Omayra and her family but her faith was already set, living right in the path of destruction...

Omayra Sánchez Garzón (August 28, 1972 – November 16, 1985) was a Colombian girl killed in Armero, department of Tolima, by the 1985 eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano when she was 13 years old. Volcanic debris mixed with ice to form massive lahars (volcanically induced mudslides, landslides, and debris flows) that rushed into the river valleys below the mountain, killing nearly 23,000 people and destroying Armero and 13 other villages.

Armero was located in the center of this photograph, taken in late November 1985.
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After a lahar demolished her home, Sánchez became pinned beneath the debris of her house, where she remained trapped in water for three days. Her plight was documented as she descended from calmness into agony. Her courage and dignity touched journalists and relief workers, who put great efforts into comforting her. After 60 hours of struggling, she died, likely as a result of either gangrene or hypothermia. Her death highlighted the failure of officials to respond correctly to the threat of the volcano, contrasted with the efforts of volunteer rescue workers to reach and treat trapped victims, despite inadequate supplies and equipment.

"I reached the town of Ameroyo at dawn about three days after the explosion. I met a farmer who told me of this young girl who needed help. He took me to her, she was almost on her own at the time, just a few people around and some rescuers helping someone else a bit further away…
I could hear people screaming for help and then silence – an eerie silence. It was very haunting. There were a few helicopters, some that had been loaned by an oil company, trying to rescue people.
Then there was this little girl and people were powerless to help her. The rescuers kept coming back to her, local farmers and some people who had some medical aid. They tried to comfort her.
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.
By this stage, Omayra was drifting in and out of consciousness. She even asked me if I could take her to school because she was worried that she would be late.
I gave my film to some photographers who were going back to the airport and had them shipped back to my agent in Paris. Omayra died about three hours after I got there." - Photograper, Frank Fournier

A photograph of Sánchez (shown at beginning of the post), was taken by the photojournalist Frank Fournier shortly before she died and was published in news outlets around the world. It was later designated the World Press Photo of the Year for 1986. Sánchez has remained a lasting figure in popular culture, remembered through music, literature, and commemorative articles.


Omayra Sánchez lived in the neighborhood of Santander with her parents Álvaro Enrique, a rice and sorghum collector, and María Aleida, along with her brother Álvaro Enrique and aunt María Adela Garzón. Prior to the eruption, her mother had traveled to Bogotá on business. The night of the disaster, Omayra and her family were awake, worrying about the ashfall from the eruption, when they heard the sound of an approaching lahar. After it hit, Omayra became trapped under her home's concrete and other debris and could not free herself. When rescue teams tried to help her, they realized that her legs were trapped under her house's roof. Sources differ as to the degree to which Sánchez was trapped. Zeiderman (2009) said she was "trapped up to her neck", while Barragán (1987) said that she was trapped up to her waist.

For the first few hours after the mudflow hit, she was covered by concrete but got her hand through a crack in the debris. After a rescuer noticed her hand protruding from a pile of debris, he and others cleared tiles and wood over the course of a day. Once the girl was freed from the waist up, her rescuers attempted to pull her out, but found the task impossible without breaking her legs in the process. Each time a person pulled her, the water pooled around her, rising so that it seemed she would drown if they let her go, so rescue workers placed a tire around her body to keep her afloat. Divers discovered that Sánchez's legs were caught under a door made of bricks, with her aunt's arms clutched tightly around her legs and feet.

At one point she asked the people to leave her so they could rest.
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DEATH
Despite her predicament, Sánchez remained relatively positive: she sang to Germán Santa María Barragán, a journalist who was working as a volunteer, asked for sweet food, drank soda, and agreed to be interviewed. At times, she was scared, and prayed or cried. On the third night, Sánchez began hallucinating, saying that she did not want to be late for school, and mentioned a math exam. Near the end of her life, Sánchez's eyes reddened, her face swelled, and her hands whitened. At one point she asked the people to leave her so they could rest. Hours later the workers returned with a pump and tried to save her, but her legs were bent under the concrete as if she was kneeling, and it was impossible to free her without severing her legs. Lacking the surgical equipment to save her from the effects of an amputation, the doctors present agreed that it would be more humane to let her die. In all, Sánchez suffered for nearly three nights (roughly 60 hours) before she died at approximately 10:05 A.M. on November 16 from exposure, most likely from gangrene or hypothermia.

Her brother survived the lahars; her father and aunt died. Her mother expressed her feelings about Omayra's death: "It is horrible, but we have to think about the living ... I will live for my son, who only lost a finger."

Divers discovered that Sánchez’s legs were caught under a door made of bricks, with her aunt’s body under her feet.
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As the public became aware of Sánchez's situation through the media, her death became a symbol of the failure of officials to properly assist victims who could have been saved. Controversy broke out after descriptions of the shortages were released in newspapers, disproving what officials had previously indicated: that they had used the best of their supplies. Volunteer relief workers said that there was such a lack of resources that supplies as basic as shovels, cutting tools, and stretchers ran out. The rescue process was impeded by large crowds and disorganization. An unnamed police officer said that the government should have depended on human resources to alleviate the problems and that the system of rescue was disorganized. Colombia's Minister of Defense, Miguel Uribe, said he "understood criticism of the rescue effort", but said that Colombia was "an undeveloped country" that did not "have that kind of equipment."





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